Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist: Universality and intimacy in mythical narratives
There is no universally accepted definition of "philosophical fiction"; however, some distinctive features found in literary works ranging from the classic era to the contemporary literary movements effectively allow to establish a connection between them, and thus to regroup them under this "philosophical fiction" label, or genre. One of these main features, and probably the most relevant to this classification, is the fact that these works, from Candide to The Handmaid's Tale, propose through narration a reflection on questions usually addressed in discursive philosophy. Through myths, the philosophical fictions, and particularly philosophical tales, address questions that extend beyond the purely fictional and literary domain, thus converging toward philosophy. To that extent, it seems relevant to analyze the nature of the narratives conveying these myths, and so this particular approach of the latter philosophical considerations. To do so, Paulo Coelho's most renowned work, The Alchemist, appears to be quite an appropriate case study. Indeed, with over 80 millions copies sold, translations into over 80 languages from its original Portuguese version, and many literary prizes won, it is still at this time one of the best selling novels ever, considered by many a reference as a modern philosophical tale.
The point of the proposed analysis is to determine the extent to which the mythical and universal, literary elements interact with a more intimate sphere of the mythic narrative included in The Alchemist, called "personal legend" by Coelho himself. By doing so, the present analysis strives to examine their interactions in order to illustrate that myths and narratives are a key element of the initiatory process characteristic of philosophical tales.
One of the main features in the novel's narrative structure is its universalism. The Alchemist is elaborated as a modern fable, a philosophical tale based upon ancient and classic narrative structures dating back to the 13th century. Indeed, one of Coelho's major inspirations for the novel was a poem by persian poet Rumi present in the One Thousand and One Nights.
"It looks like The Thousand and One Nights" (P. Coelho, 2021, p. 92)
As a matter of fact, the story of Santiago the shepherd going on an initiatory quest in order to fulfill his dream and destiny is, according to the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index dividing folklores into categories of patterns and "types", classified as the 1645 international folktales.This type, called "The Treasure At Home" type, consists in the following:
"A man dreams that if he goes to a distant city he will find a treasure on a certain bridge. Finding no treasure, he tells his dream to a man who says that he too has dreamed of treasure at certain place. He describes the place, which is the first man's home. When the latter returns home he finds the treasure." (A. Aarne, S. Thompson, 1961)
Many thematic elements of The Alchemist's plot correspond to this tale archetype, such as the oneirism, the journey and the treasure. The narrative features used to convey this topoi to the reader also participate in establishing Coelho's work as a direct inheritor of a classic literary form. Indeed, the plot itself is linear, and the storyline one and only. The reader follows the journey of Santiago, and the other characters in the novel are auxiliaries to this quest. They serve the initiatory process of the main protagonist, as well as the different episodes serve the experiences necessary to this process. It is a very classical literary scheme that the narrator proposes to the reader, and the omniscient point of view associated with the use of the narrative past definitely justify the "philosophical tale" label often used to speak about the Alchemist. There are no superfluous characterizations, only the necessary ones to the set the plot and convey the essential thematics. The very first lines of the novel illustrate this essentiality particular to classical tales:
" The boy's name was Santiago. Dusk was falling as the boy arrived with his herd at an abandoned church." (P. Coelho, 2021, p. 3)
Using an in medias res introduction, the narrator directly presents his main protagonist, with only a very elementary sentence, providing the reader with his essential characteristics; it's a boy, and he is called Santiago. There is no physical description, and the only spatio-temporal frame the reader has access to is the abandoned church as the dusk falls.
Remaining vague on purpose is a common narrative process in philosophical tales, as it allows the writer to tend towards universalism. By not characterizing their characters more than the bare necessities, the writer allows its work to reach a vaster reading horizon, as the identification process becomes easier to accomplish.
Indeed, universalism is the feature that links The Alchemist to its literary inheritance. Like the classic tales, the purpose behind Santiago's story is to teach, or at least convey, universal and valid truth about life through an initiatory quest and the identification process with the protagonist discovering them. This type of narrative presupposes the existence of universal truths and are based on the will to discover them, and The Alchemist is no exception. Throughout Santiago's quest, these truths even merge into one, named "The Soul of the world" (P. Coelho, 2021, p. 106)
"But there was one idea that seemed to repeat itself throughout all the books: all things are the manifestation of one thing only." (P. Coelho, 2021, p. 83)
Here, the use of the present simple aspect states the second part of the sentence as a universal truth. Also, one particular passage from the second part of the novel illustrates the allegorical dimension of The Alchemist and its will to actually reveal the universal truths of the Soul of the World:
"It was just that people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetration to the Soul of the World" (P. Coelho, 2021, p. 106)
Most certainly, The Alchemist is an allegory, the narrative representation of a great idea, the idea that the universe is helping one to fulfill one's destiny if one but learns to recognize it. And myths, in a generic acceptation of the term, are the medium to communicate such a perception of reality. Indeed, alchemy, old kings and treasures are universal symbols which easily favor universal concepts, and by resorting to them, not only does Coelho place his work in a direct literary lineage, but he also conveys a certain philosophy. Not only does he use literary technics and structures specific to philosophical tales, but he also adresses topoi usually found in classic literature, such as the notion of fatum or the fulfillment of one's destiny. And as in other classical tales, even though the structure of the narration follows a single protagonist in his journey, the way the writer adresses these topoi is universal. He approaches them through the prism of Santiago's journey, but aims to reach a universal perception of these topics, that can be applied to any individuality.
However, to resume The Alchemist to its universalism would be a reductive perception of this work. Indeed, if the truth the narrator is seeking to reveal through its narrative is, by essence, universal, individuality and introspection are other main components of the novel.
As previously mentioned, the structure and characters of the plot all serve one point: the personal development of Santiago, the main protagonist. An episode particularly relevant for this process is the Crystal merchant one. The experiences lived by this character are only told in order to establish a parallel with Santiago's own experiences, letting the boy understand another general truth leading him to the Soul of the World. The narrator does not seem interested in the story of the merchant itself, but in the repercussion its narration will have on the main protagonist. Similarly, the quest for the Master Work that the Englishman is leading is exposed because it lets Santiago progress on his path towards understanding the nature of the Soul of the World. All the narrative elements previously demonstrated gravitate around the initiatory process of the main protagonist, and in that sense the "self-help" designation is relevant. The universalism that Coelho establishes all along his narration is, per se, common to everyone, but its interpretation is deeply linked to individuality and is made through an introspective process of the main protagonist. That's probably one of the reason why omens are so important through Santiago's journey. They are the prism through which each individuals can perceive this universal truth, the Soul of the World. From the encounter with the old king, in the first chapters, it is made clear that the journey to come is about Santiago fulfilling his dream. Santiago may be the main protagonist of the work, but he too is a personification, a symbol standing for intimacy and introspection:
"The boy didn't know what a person's destiny was.
"It's what you have always wanted to accomplish [...] At that point in their life everything is clear and everything is possible. They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their life... " (P. Coelho, 2021, p. 22)
This dialogue between the boy and the old king is a major moment in the novel, as it is revelation of what will be its moto, which is the belief according to which that universe will conspire to help fulfilling one's dream: the Personal Legend. This interlacing between universalism and individualism is probably best verbalized by Paulo Coelho himself, in his "Conversation with the master - The personal legend":
"What is the Personal Legend? It is your blessing, the path God has chosen for you here on Earth. Whenever a man does that which gives him enthusiasm, he is following his Legend. " (P. Coelho, 2021)
The term "personal legend" itself implies the three main components of its philosophy: the mythical one, the universal one, and the intimate one. Indeed, it is, in the first place, myths and their narration that convey the universal truth. Finally, through the narratives related to a highly symbolized protagonist and his introspections , an identification process is operated, leading to individualities.
In that sense, myths and narratives are essential to the initiatory process that effectively is The Alchemist. They are the first step on the introspective path that the reader is taking while Santiago crosses the Mediterranean sea.
This brief analysis of Coelho's most famous work reveals both literary, narrative elements and philosophical discussions, notably on the notions of fate, and reflections about the position of man as an individuality in the universe. It is a good example of the particularity of philosophical tales, which is the penchant for conveying ontological and philosophic considerations through and thanks to the narrative structures and artistic artificialities. By doing so, through mythical narratives and their protean forms, philosophical tales such as The Alchemist bring new perspectives and new understanding of these philosophic discussions.
Antti A. , Stith T. The types of the folktale. 1961. Helsinki: Academia Scientiarium Fennica, p. 469.
Ashliman. D. L. The Man Who Became Rich through a Dream and other folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 1645. 1999-2021.
Coelho, P. The Alchemist. 2021. Thorsons. HarperCollins Publisher, London, pp. 22-106.
Coelho, P. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. 2023. Paulo Coelho - The Official Website of Paulo Coelho.
Retrieved 2023/02/03 from:
Coelho, P. Conversation with the master - The personal legend. 2021. Paulo Coelho Stories & Reflections.
Retrieved 2023/02/03 from:
Cowles, G. Inside the List. 2009/10/08. The New-York Times.
Retrieved 2023/02/03 from:
Cover image: Teniers II, D. An Alchemist in his Workshop, XVII Century.
Figure 1: Coelho, P. (2014) The Alchemist- 25th Anniversary edition, Harper Collins editions.
Figure 2: Sani ol-Molk, (1849-1856), One Thousand and One Nights illustration.
Figure 3: Unknown, (XVI century), Sun Rising over the city, Splendor Solis (22).