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.