The alchemist reads a book containing the story of Narcissus. According to legend, Narcissus kneeled every day beside a lake to admire his reflection, until one day he became so fascinated with his own beauty that he fell into the lake and drowned. The goddess of the forest appeared at the lake and found the water transformed into salty tears. She asked the lake why it cried for Narcissus, assuming it had admired Narcissus’s beauty. The lake replies that it was enjoying its own beauty reflected in Narcissus’s eyes.
The third-person narrator describes a shepherd named Santiago arriving with his flock at an abandoned Church. Santiago decides to sleep there. A giant sycamore tree grows in the spot where a sacristy once stood. While Santiago sleeps, he has a disturbing dream (we do not learn exactly what the dream was). When he wakes, his flock begins to stir, and Santiago talks to the sheep about a girl he met the year prior. She is the daughter of a merchant who Santiago is visiting to sell some wool.
When Santiago arrives, the merchant asks him to wait until afternoon to sell him wool. While Santiago reads, he meets the merchant’s daughter and talks to her about life in the village. She asks why he chooses to be a shepherd even though he can read. Santiago avoids the question, preferring instead to talk about his travels. Santiago finds the merchant’s daughter’s Moorish eyes and raven-colored hair entrancing. He experiences for the first time a desire to stay in one place for the rest of his life. When the merchant finally appears, he asks Santiago for the wool of four sheep and tells him to return the next year.
The story jumps forward in time almost a year, to four days before Santiago’s next visit to the village. He stays in the abandoned church and daydreams about the merchant’s daughter. As he urges his sheep along, he admires their loyalty. Santiago imagines he could kill his sheep one by one, and each one would be none the wiser until he killed it. He feels troubled by his thought, and that night has the same troubling dream he had the year before.
Santiago recalls the day he told his father he wanted to travel instead of becoming a priest. His father told him that travelers see other lands, but do not change as a result. They just end up being nostalgic for the past. His father said the only people of their class who travel are shepherds. The next day, Santiago’s father gave him three gold coins to purchase a flock of sheep. He encouraged Santiago to travel, but said Santiago would learn that their own countryside is best. As he recalls the scene, Santiago senses that his father also would have liked to travel, but could not afford to while raising a family. Santiago wonders if his sheep enjoy discovering new roads and sights each day, but decides they only care about eating. He compares the flock’s single-mindedness to his own preoccupation with the merchant’s daughter. Suddenly, Santiago remembers that an old woman in the nearby village of Tarifa interprets dreams. He decides to visit her.
The prologue of the Alchemist runs only a little more than one page, but it gives the reader several clues about what to expect in the story. The alchemist says the book containing the story of Narcissus belonged to someone in “the caravan,” hinting that a journey may occur during the course of the tale. The alchemist also expresses surprise that the author of the book extended the popular legend of Narcissus past its traditional conclusion. The usual version of the legend ends as Narcissus dies looking into a lake, illustrating the danger of vanity. In the version Santiago reads, however, we learn that the lake felt upset that Narcissus had drowned, because it enjoyed feeding its own vanity while looking into Narcissus’s eyes. This idea, that vanity can serve a good cause despite its perils, will become an important theme of the book. The Narcissus story also readies the reader for the magical, mythic quality of The Alchemist. It introduces us to a world where a lake can speak, goddesses roam the countryside, and magic is a fact of life.
Almost as soon as we meet Santiago, we learn that he is not an ordinary shepherd. Most notably, he reads regularly, which surprises the merchant’s daughter. Shepherding presents an unusual career path for an educated young man, but Santiago clearly feels comfortable with his choice. We also see that Santiago’s bearing has quickly made him successful at his job. He has regular customers, purchases books as he pleases, and appears to be content with his lifestyle. Only his attraction to the merchant’s daughter, who the narrator says acts as the first signal that Santiago’s life will never be the same, makes him question his choice to be a traveling shepherd. The other signal is Santiago’s troubling dream, which is not initially explained but always occurs while he sleeps under the sycamore tree growing in the sacristy of the abandoned church. This mysterious dream repeats in two consecutive passages a year apart, and it serves as an important piece of foreshadowing.
Santiago enjoys his life as a shepherd not only because it allows him to travel, but also because he loves his sheep. Santiago notices his flock’s ability to find contentment through food and water alone, and he almost envies the fact that they never have to make any decisions. Happiness for a human being, he thinks, seems much more complicated. On the other hand, Santiago feels frustrated by the fact that his sheep can’t share his appreciation of travel. He imagines that he could kill his sheep one by one and the flock would not even notice. The unexpectedly violent image shows us that the sheep live blind to important truths, and that they are not to be emulated. Santiago wonders if all humans are like his sheep: looking only for physical contentment and living without ever appreciating life. Later, this tension becomes very important to Santiago: even though he has travelled throughout Spain, he still feels limited. He wonders if his relatively local travels, comforting stacks of books, and obedient flock play the same role in his life that food and water play in the lives of his sheep. Santiago’s thoughts imply that he must seek out a higher purpose if he wants to be truly happy.