I discovered “The Alchemist” in high school while doing research for a literature paper. The title alone was intriguing enough, but when I found out it was an adventure novel, and a short one at that, I decided it might be worth a read.
And, like anyone who’s read the book knows, the first readthrough isn’t exactly clear.
What do I mean? First, a quick outline of the book: Santiago is a poor shepherd boy living in Spain, and he has a recurring dream where he finds buried treasure beneath the Great Pyramid of Giza. Seeing it as a sign of his destiny, he takes what little he has and crosses the Sahara Desert to his destination. Along the way, he encounters multiple strange and eccentric characters, including the eponymous Alchemist, who enlightens him on the meaning of life and his journey through stories of their own.
Due, in part, to its short length and its relatively dry tone, “The Alchemist” creates this hypnotic, dreamlike pace that makes it easy to read, but difficult to interpret– especially the first time through. Much like “Alice in Wonderland,” the protagonist frequently encounters strange and supernatural phenomena in what is supposed to be the real world, but takes it in stride as part of the journey– which is not one of finding buried treasure, but of self-discovery. Rather than question the magic, both the reader and Santiago merely accept it and hear what it has to say, which happens to be quite profound.
A core theme of the book is something dubbed the “Personal Legend.” One of the first characters that Santiago meets is the biblical king of Jerusalem, Melchizedek, who tells him plainly that the point of his journey is to discover and fulfill his own Personal Legend. Santiago spends the rest of the book figuring out what that means.
A Personal Legend, roughly speaking, is your destiny; more than that, it’s what you’ve always wanted to do in your heart and encompasses everything you do in pursuit of that goal.
When we don’t know or lose sight of our Personal Legend, we become lost, scared, ignorant, fearful, unable to grow or change into anything better. But once we figure it out and embrace it, to quote the Alchemist himself, “All the universe conspires to help you achieve it.”
Of course, discovering your Personal Legend is only half the battle. Realizing it takes a lifetime of sacrifice and suffering, many people give up long before they make any permanent progress. Santiago constantly doubts himself, as does the world around him, but he holds fast to the wisdom of his teachers.
I find “The Alchemist” to be a deeply profound and necessary story in today’s world.
In an era where it’s easy to feel powerless, as though most major decisions in your life are decided for you by forces beyond your control, the idea of a Personal Legend is a much-needed escape rope into some sense of self-agency. And yet, that same sense of empowerment and satisfaction that it offers can be very unpleasant when it forces us out of our comfort zone or to make harsh sacrifices in the name of self-betterment.
I personally believe that realizing and embracing who you are as a person is worth any personal cost. Of course, it’s exceedingly easy to fall down dark and destructive paths so wisdom is a prerequisite, and we must find wise and trusted teachers before doing this.
If any of this went over your head or doesn’t sit right with you, I don’t blame you; it’s heavy stuff. But thankfully, there’s a lovely little book you can read all about it.
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