One book that all of my wilderness guide comrades recommend to anyone who enjoys reading is Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I decided, after browsing the field office’s library, to give it a shot. [Just fyi, there will be spoilers.]
The story follows the adventure of a Spanish shepherd boy named Santiago, some years ago. This boy is educated – he went to seminary to become a priest, but dropped out because he wants something different out of life. He wants to travel, to know the world. So he took up a traveling occupation, shepherding. A few years into this occupation, he has the same dream twice – he is watching his sheep when a child appears to play with them. The child then takes the boy’s hands, magically transports the two of the to the Egyptian pyramids, and says the boy will find treasure there.
This dream begins Santiago on a journey towards his own ‘Personal Legend’, the thing one has “always wanted to accomplish” in one’s life (21). He crosses paths with with a Gypsy woman, an ancient king, a thief, an Arab crystal salesman, an Englishman studying the ways of alchemy, a whole Arabian caravan, the love of his life, and a true alchemist in his journey.
More importantly than any adventure the boy has, than the fact that he indeed finds the treasure from his dream, is Santiago’s personal spiritual journey, which coincides with his Personal Legend. He comes to know and communicate with “the Soul of the World”, the underlying force which binds all other things together, which will eventually become one with all things as all things achieve their own Personal Legends. Towards this end, the Soul of the World helps all things towards achieving their Personal Legends. In the climax of his spiritual journey,
The boy reached through to the Soul of the World, and saw that it was a part of the Soul of God. And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul. And that he, a boy, could perform miracles.
At this point, Santiago already communicated with the elements – the desert, the wind, and the sun – and in the moment mentioned above, communicated with God, ‘the hand that wrote all’. He was able to do all this because he learned to listen to his heart, which always conspired to help him achieve his Personal Legend. He understood that as humans genuinely attempt to follow their Personal Legends, they learn to understand and act in love, bettering themselves, the world, and thus also the Soul of the World. This process is to continue in the world until the Soul of the World cannot be bettered, and all things have become one. This is the reality Santiago enters into, in the moment above becoming one with God and performing a miracle.
Now, in non-novel terms, I would situate the above philosophy in the Eastern tradition, slightly influenced by Christianity. Coelho makes the Hindu idea of moksha, realizing one’s union with God and/or the unity of all things, the central teaching of this work of fiction. I am not sure how love factors into Hinduism, however, and the Internet is not producing helpful, reliable information on this point. He ties Christianity into the story by placing a smattering of Biblical moral lessons in the mouths of a few characters. One can see a bit of Christianity in the hierarchy of forces Santiago communicates with through his heart, with God at the very top, the Soul of the World below God, and various elemental forces forming a step-ladder downward. One can also see the integral role of sacrificial love in moving the world towards its climax, perfection and oneness.
An easy read, with a positive message encouraging readers to follow their dreams, endure through hard times, and become a better human being in the journey, The Alchemist is a book I would recommend to book lovers who feel discouraged, unaware of their purpose in life, or scattered, unable to dig in and commit to achieving their life goal. Coelho’s novel will provide you with some brain and soul cud to chew!