Paulo Coelho's beloved and internationally popular short fable, The Alchemist, reveals the spiritual quest as a process of following your dreams. Whenever we do this, the young protagonist discovers, we find the universe helps us. In this Values & Visions Guide, three short passages introduce key themes. They are followed by a brief synopsis of the story and questions for discussion and reflection.

 

• Santiago, a shepherd boy, has been telling the story of his life to an Englishman while traveling with a caravan in Africa. The older man is especially interested in the boy's experiences working in a crystal shop. He observes: " 'When you want something with all your heart, that's when you are closest to the Soul of the World. It's always a positive force.'

• "He also said that this was not just a human gift, that everything on the face of the earth had a soul, whether mineral, vegetable, or animal — or even just a simple thought."

• " 'Everything on earth is being continuously transformed, because the earth is alive. . .and it has a soul. We are part of that soul, so we rarely recognize that it is working for us. But in the crystal shop you probably realized the glasses were collaborating in your success." '

What the Book Is About

Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy, has a dream about finding a treasure near the Pyramids of Egypt. A gypsy woman and a mysterious king advise him to pursue his destiny.

With the courage of an adventurer, Santiago sells his sheep and travels to Tangier in Africa. After a thief steals his money, he takes a job with a crystal merchant. Crossing the desert on the next phase of his journey, Santiago meets an Englishman who is impressed with the boy's ability to follow his heart.

At an oasis, Santiago is enchanted by a beautiful young woman named Fatima and realizes that love is the transforming power of the world. He earns more money by predicting an attack on the oasis. Following the advice of the king, the boy has learned to read omens.

On the last leg of the journey, Santiago is befriended by an alchemist who helps him understand the language of the desert and the wind. This comes in handy when the boy faces his most difficult test after they are captured by hostile tribesmen.

Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist is a mesmerizing fable about the spiritual journey we must all take to fulfill our dreams and play out our destinies. Along the way, we need to learn how to trust others, to read the world for signs of God, to listen to our heart, to make the most of coincidence and luck, and to accept the subtle ways love "transforms and improves the Soul of the World."

About the Author

Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian playwright, director, and composer who lives in Rio de Janeiro. With sales of more than 75 million copies worldwide, his books have been translated into 61 languages and published in 150 countries. He is the recipient of numerous prestigious international awards, among them the Crystal Award by the World Economic Forum, France's Chevalier de l'Ordre National de la L├ęgion d'Honneur, and Germany's Bambi 2001 Award.

For Discussion and Reflection

1. The World's Greatest Lie

" 'It's a book that says the same thing almost all the other books in the world say,' continued the old man. 'It describes people's inability to choose their own destinies. And it ends up saying that everyone believes the world's greatest lie.'

" 'What's the world's greatest lie?' the boy asked, completely surprised.

''  'It's this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what's happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That's the world's greatest lie'." (page 18)
• Do you agree with the gypsy woman who tells the shepherd boy that "dreams are the language of God"? What role have dreams played in your spiritual tradition?
• Who is the old man who calls himself the King of Salem? What is the significance of the two stones he gives the boy?
• What individuals, organizations, or institutions still serve up the world's greatest lie?

2. The Soul of the World

" 'The Soul of the World is nourished by people's happiness. And also by unhappiness, envy, and jealousy. To realize one's destiny is a person's only real obligation. All things are one.

" 'And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it'." (page 23)
• Throughout this fable, Coelho refers to "the Soul of the World." What do you think he means by this term?
• What evidence can you point to, either in your own life or in the experiences of others, that when you want something deeply enough, "all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it"?
• Talk about the possible interpretations of the story on pages 32 - 33 about the secret of happiness and the teaspoon with two drops of oil.

3. Enthusiasm

"But the sheep had taught him something even more important: that there was a language in the world that everyone understood, a language the boy had used throughout the time that he was trying to improve things at the shop. It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired." (page 64)
• What is the difference between the boy and the crystal merchant?
• The word enthusiasm comes from the Latin "en theos" — one with the energy of the Divine. Are you enthusiastic about your heart's desire? Can this internal energy be turned on or off by will power? Share your experience of enthusiasm and its connection with love and purpose.

4. The Universal Language

"The Englishman said, 'If I could, I'd write a huge encyclopedia just about the words luck and coincidence. It's with those words that the universal language is written'." (page 73)
• What role do luck and coincidence play in Santiago's journey? Do you agree with the Englishmen that these are universal experiences?
• In Coelho's fable, the protagonist seems to meet just the right person he needs to meet at just the right time. C. G. Jung called this synchronicity. Others refer to it as luck. Recount one recent incident in your life which is an expression of this phenomenon.

5. Love

"At that moment, it seemed to him that time stood still, and the Soul of the World surged within him. When he looked into her dark eyes, and saw that her lips were poised between a laugh and silence, he learned the most important part of the language that all he world spoke — the language that everyone on earth was capable of understanding in their heart. It was love. Something older than humanity, more ancient than the desert." (page 97)
• What is your response to Santiago's immediate recognition that Fatima is the woman meant to be his wife? Do you believe in love at first sight?
• What do you think of the idea that "there is a twin soul for every person in the world"?

6. Reading the World

"But the boy told him about the hawks: that he had been watching their flight and had suddenly felt himself to have plunged to the Soul of the World.

"The camel driver understood what the boy was saying. He knew that any given thing on the face of the earth could reveal the history of all things. One could open a book to any page, or look at a person's hand; one could turn a card, or watch the flight of birds. . . . whatever the thing observed, one could find a connection with his experience of the moment. Actually, it wasn't that those things, in themselves, revealed anything at all; it was just that people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetration to the Soul of the World." (page 106)
• Give some examples of how the boy reads the signs of the world. How does this ability enrich his journey?
• What does your spiritual tradition have to say about reading signs and penetrating to the Soul of the World?

7. God

" 'My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,' the boy told the alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.

" 'Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second's encounter with God and with eternity.'

" 'Every second of the search is an encounter with God,' the boy told his heart. 'When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I've known that every hour was a part of the dream that I would find it'." (page 137)
• Discuss how the alchemist and the shepherd boy exchange meanings. Why is the book titled The Alchemist?
• In what sense has every second of the boy's search been "an encounter with God"?
• What point is Coelho making by including the story of the centurion from the New Testament?
• Share the spiritual meanings you have been led to by reading and discussing The Alchemist.

Other Books by Paulo Coelho
By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept
The Fifth Mountain
The Zahir
The Valkyries

 

This guide is one in a series of more than 200 Values & Visions Guides written by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. Text Copyright © by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. This guide is posted as a service to visitors to www.spiritualityandpractice.com. It may not be photocopied, reprinted, or distributed electronically without permission from Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. For this permission and for a list of other guides in the Values & Visions series and ordering information, email your name and mailing address to Mary Ann Brussat.