‘There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.’
Paulo Coelho's Blog
Paulo Coelho Foundation
On Being with Krista Tippett: Paulo Coelho — The Alchemy of Pilgrimage
Paulo Coelho's interview with Oprah Winfrey
The Alchemist (1988)
Paulo Coelho
In Summary

Hunting for buried treasure in Egypt, a young man unearths the gem of a loving and benevolent universe, which unveils itself to those who pursue their true calling.


Tucked into the preface of this book lies a retelling of the myth of Narcissus. Like the original, Narcissus drowns after falling in love with his own reflection in a freshwater lake. Unlike the original, the lake then became salty with tears, weeping for the loss of Narcissus. One day a goddess appeared and pitied the lamenting lake, for its waters could no longer gaze upon the beautiful Narcissus. Confused, the lake replied, ‘I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.’ Thus begins Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, a tale of treasures buried not in distant lands but deep within – a beauty that is literally in the eye of the beholder. 

Like the protagonist of The Alchemist, Coelho went through a long journey without before returning to the treasure within. He wandered through North Africa, Mexico, and Europe, was imprisoned by a dictator in Brazil, was committed against his will to a mental institution, and spiritually awakened on the ancient highway of the Camino de Santiago. His wanderings eventually led to the publication of The Pilgrimage (1987) as well as his most famous work, The Alchemist (1988), which chronicles the fictional journey of a treasure-hunter from Spain to Egypt. Originally published in the native Portuguese of its Brazilian author, The Alchemist soon became an international best-seller, with over fifty translations. Amazingly, Coelho claims to have written the book in only two weeks, for it was ‘already written’ in his soul. 


The story begins with Santiago, a Spanish shepherd boy, seeking shelter for his herd at an abandoned church. Dozing off, he dreams of Egyptian pyramids and hidden treasure. He soon meets a man named Melchizedek, who urges him to sell his sheep and journey to Egypt in order to fulfil this Personal Legend (a term for the dreams and aspirations we all have but few of us follow). While many blame life for robbing us of our dreams, Melchizedek claims that this is the world’s ‘greatest lie,’ for we are ultimately in control of what’s happening to us. If you want something enough to chase after it, then ‘all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.’ 

Santiago sells his sheep and then ferries across the Strait of Gibraltar to North Africa, where he is swindled out of his money and has to take a job with a Muslim merchant. The business explodes, allowing Santiago to refinance his journey. He urges the merchant to head east along with him in order to fulfil his lifelong dream of pilgrimaging to Mecca. However, the merchant refuses to go, providing a stark contrast between those who strive for their Personal Legends and those who do not. Instead, Santiago travels east with an Englishman who is seeking out an alchemist in the desert, hoping to learn how to turn lead into gold. 

On the next leg of his journey, Santiago learns how to speak with the desert and its creatures, realising that reality is permeated by a ‘universal language’ that does not ‘depend on words.’ In the desert, he meets the alchemist, who knows this universal language and hence is able to read reality and translate it from one form into another (i.e., from lead into gold). When they are captured by local warriors shortly thereafter, the alchemist bets the warrior chief that if Santiago can successfully turn into wind then they both must be set free. Santiago initially does not know how to achieve this feat until he realises that love is what unlocks the universal language, for love always makes us ‘strive to become better than we are’ in order to make the world around us better. In contrast to the static nature of those who fear failure or the merchant who prefers comfort over chasing his dream, love always stretches beyond itself, encouraging us to transcend who we once were. Because love, like alchemy, is transformative, it can convert Santiago into the wind.

Santiago eventually reaches Egypt, where he is accosted by rogues, one of whom laughs and mocks Santiago when he hears about his vision of hidden treasure: ‘You’ll learn that a man shouldn’t be so stupid. Two years ago, right here on this spot, I had a recurrent dream, too. I dreamed that I should travel to the fields of Spain and look for a ruined church... I was told that, if I dug [there]… I would find a hidden treasure. But I’m not so stupid as to cross an entire desert.’ Santiago then laughed aloud, for he knew that the real treasure was back where his journey began, with the sheep at the church in his homeland. The treasure of dreams is not in Egypt or El Dorado but beneath the feet of the dreamer. Santiago eventually returns to the church where he began, digs up the treasure, and says to himself, ‘Life really is generous to those who pursue their Personal Legend.’


The Alchemist illustrates its lessons through an engaging and embodied narrative. Readers who might normally have been confused by the mysteries of Coelho’s message will be able to cling to his story for steadiness, taking their cues from Santiago, who is also experiencing these wonders for the very first time. 

In terms of content, the book will likely appeal to readers who are looking for courage in the face of fear, a picture of a cosmos defined by universal love, and an affirmation of personal destiny as primary above all else. Yet that which they seek is, according to Coelho, already within; Coelho is but a willing midwife offering to help deliver that which has been long gestating in our own souls. 

Further Reading By This Author

While The Alchemist remains Coelho’s most popular work, he has also penned nearly three dozen other books and novels, including The Pilgrimage, Warrior of Light, The Archer, Eleven Minutes, The Spy, Adultery, and the On the Seventh Day series.

No items found.
Related works
No items found.
Back to Library of Light