Skip over navigation

The Alchemist

Paulo Coelho

Important Quotations Explained

Section 13

Key Facts

1. “…whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it's because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It's your mission on earth."

This statement, which Melchizedek says to Santiago upon their first meeting, forms the foundation of the philosophy of The Alchemist. Essentially, Melchizedek says that dreams are not silly or selfish desires that should be ignored. Instead, they serve as the primary means by which people can get in touch with the mystical force that connects everything in the universe. He convinces Santiago that his nagging desire to visit the pyramids is actually a calling, and he sets Santiago on his journey of spiritual discovery. By associating seemingly selfish human desires with the soul of the universe, The Alchemist presents a form of spirituality that differs radically from traditional religions that espouse self-denial. Instead of practicing sympathy by identifying with and helping others, Santiago must focus on his own personal dreams.

This quote also introduces the concept of the soul of the universe, which characters refer to later in the novel as the Soul of the World. This entity becomes extremely important later in the book, as it is the spirit that Santiago must connect with in order to turn into the wind. The quote alludes to the idea that a person’s purpose in life centers on fulfilling one’s desires, a notion that also becomes important in the form of the Personal Legend. Although this quotation doesn’t mention these ideas by name, it lays the groundwork for Santiago’s and the reader’s later understanding of them.

2. “…every blessing ignored becomes a curse. I don't want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to look at wealth and at horizons that I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now that I see how immense my possibilities are, I'm going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should be able to accomplish, and I don't want to do so.”

The crystal merchant says these words to Santiago as Santiago prepares to leave Tangier after an extremely successful year working at the crystal shop. The crystal merchant expresses a regret common among several ancillary characters in The Alchemist, such as the baker and Santiago’s father. He knows that he has not achieved all he can in life and feels depressed as a result. The crystal merchant serves as a warning to Santiago that those who ignore their Personal Legends in favor of settling into material comforts always feel haunted by their untapped potential. This idea recurs throughout the book, and the complacency that the crystal merchant represents serves as a near constant danger for Santiago. Santiago nearly goes back to Spain after leaving Tangier, for instance, and he hesitates to leave the Al-Fayoum oasis for the pyramids because he already has Fatima and some wealth there.

The characters that guide Santiago, most notably the alchemist, constantly warn him against settling for what he has. The alchemist, for instance, describes how Santiago’s life would unfold if he remained at the oasis rather than live out his Personal Legend. Santiago and Fatima would be happy for some time, but gradually Santiago would begin to regret not seeking out his Personal Legend, while Fatima would feel that she caused Santiago to abandon his dreams. Eventually, Santiago would no longer be able to read omens, and he would ultimately lose touch with the Soul of the World. The lesson set forth in the quotation and this subsequent example essentially says that a person can only feel truly fulfilled by pursuing his or her Personal Legend.

3. “We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it’s our life or our possessions or our property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.”

Here, the camel driver addresses fear while he tells Santiago his life story during the trip to Al-Fayoum. Fear acts as the biggest impediment to achieving one’s Personal Legend. Santiago faces many obstacles during his journey, but he regularly feels tempted to abandon his quest when he fears losing what he has already earned. For example, Santiago initially balks at giving up his flock of sheep to Melchizedek. In Tangier, Santiago fears losing the money he earned with the crystal merchant. In the oasis, Santiago fears losing Fatima. Finally, after being captured, Santiago fears he will never be able to turn into the wind. The irony of this fear stems from the fact that Santiago earns ever greater rewards each time he abandons his fear and gives up his previous possessions.

This quotation also raises the notion that a person should have no reason to fear anything if he recognizes that he plays a role in something greater than his own life. The camel driver speaks these lines to Santiago from experience, having lost all of his possessions when a flood destroyed his orchard farm. He acknowledges, however, that the same hand that writes a person’s life story also writes the history of the world. In other words, each person’s life plays a part in the larger world around him, and the camel driver suggests that God dictates that part. This realization doesn’t prevent a person from suffering tragedies, but if the person recognizes that his tragedy serves a higher purpose, he has no reason to fear any loss. This insight becomes important to Santiago as he faces challenges later in the book, particularly as he learns to stop fearing failure and to trust in the omens he sees.

4. “The alchemists spent years in their laboratories, observing the fire that purified the metals. They spent so much time close to the fire that gradually they gave up the vanities of the world. They discovered that the purification of the metals had led to a purification of themselves.”

The Englishman relates this history to Santiago as Santiago reads a book on alchemy. The quotation summarizes the key insight that connects the practice of transforming metals through alchemy with the idea of human beings attaining spiritual perfection by pursuing their Personal Legends. Just as alchemists purify lead, removing its impurities to transform it into gold, a person can purify himself by focusing completely on living out his Personal Legend. This process strips the person of impurities, transforming him as the lead is transformed. Similarly, the alchemists the Englishman speaks of did not purify themselves because they wanted to create gold but because they became so focused on their Personal Legends that they rid themselves of all other concerns, “the vanities of the world” as the Englishman puts it.

Santiago’s guides through The Alchemist, including Melchizedek and the alchemist himself, stress to Santiago that he must also put aside all other concerns. The alchemist councils Santiago to leave the oasis, for instance, even though Santiago wants to stay for Fatima. But abandoning these other cares acts as the equivalent of removing impurities from lead, and only by remaining committed foremost to living out his Personal Legend will Santiago transform himself. This idea implies that all other desires, including that for romantic love, should play a secondary role to pursuing one’s Personal Legend.

5. “What you still need to know is this: before a dream is realized, the Soul of the World tests everything that was learned along the way. It does this not because it is evil, but so that we can, in addition to realizing our dreams, master the lessons we’ve learned as we’ve moved toward that dream. That’s the point at which, as we say in the language of the desert, one ‘dies of thirst just when the palm trees have appeared on the horizon.’
“Every search begins with beginner’s luck. And every search ends with the victor’s being severely tested.”

The alchemist says these last words to Santiago before the two part ways at the end of the novel. In short, the alchemist explains to Santiago why he had to endure so many trials if the universe, as the alchemist and others have said, does actually want him to fulfill his Personal Legend. Santiago, for instance, may have began his journey with “beginner’s luck,” although only to a limited degree as he was immediately robbed and left penniless in Tangier, but as his quest went on he faced progressively more difficult challenges. When he must turn himself into the wind, Santiago seems as if he has to trick the elements into helping him. But as the alchemist explains, these challenges served their own purpose: to help Santiago master the lessons he had already learned.

The alchemist’s statement implies that the important part of pursuing one’s Personal Legend consists not just in reaching the final goal, whether that be turning lead into gold or finding a treasure near the pyramids, but also in learning through action. Earlier in the book, the alchemist explains this notion to Santiago using alchemists as his example. He says the alchemists became too focused on the gold and lost the focus on living out their Personal Legends. As a result, they lost the ability to perform alchemy. Santiago, meanwhile, ultimately travels through Spain, into Africa, and across the Sahara to the pyramids, only to learn that the treasure he seeks lies under a tree in the area where he began his trip. His transformation, however, could not have occurred without this journey and the experience he gained from living out his Personal Legend. Along the way, he learned to read omens, to communicate with the elements, and even to turn himself into the wind.

Follow Us