An Englishman sits in a stable preparing for a caravan trip though the Sahara desert. He studies alchemy and hopes to learn from an alchemist residing in the desert’s Al-Fayoum oasis. The legendary alchemist supposedly discovered the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of Life.
Santiago also joins the group traveling with the desert caravan, and he tells the Englishman his story of working for the crystal merchant. The Englishman seems unfriendly at first, telling Santiago that Urim and Thummim are cheap rock crystals. Santiago explains that a king gave them to him, but that the Englishman wouldn’t understand. The Englishman says he does understand, because he read the story of Urim and Thummim in the Bible. He explains that he is seeking an alchemist, and Santiago replies that he is heading to Egypt to look for treasure. As the caravan sets off, the caravan leader orders everyone to swear to their God that they will follow his orders. On their trip, the Englishman reads constantly, so Santiago speaks to him very little during the journey. Instead, he daydreams, tries to read his book, and befriends a camel driver.
Santiago relates his adventures as a shepherd to the camel driver, and one day the camel driver tells Santiago his own story. He maintained a successful orchard, had travelled to Mecca, and felt he could die happily. However, one day an earthquake caused a flood that ruined his land, so he had to become a camel driver. These events taught him not to fear losing material possessions.
The caravan runs into groups of hooded Bedouins who warn of nearby thieves, barbarians, and tribal wars. The caravan travels quickly through the dangerous area, and no one speaks at night. The travelers do not light their fires either so as not to draw attention, and they must huddle around a circle of camels to stay warm. One night, the Englishman, unable to sleep, walks with Santiago around the encampment. Santiago goes into detail about the story of his life, and the Englishman compares Santiago’s success to the governing principle of alchemy, called the Soul of the World. The term refers to the positive force of the world that works for the betterment of all things, both living and inanimate.
Santiago decides to learn more about the Soul of the World by reading the Englishman’s alchemy books. He learns that the most important text in alchemy is inscribed on an emerald, called the Emerald Tablet, and runs only a few lines. He also reads about the Master Work, which entails purifying metals to the point that all that is left of them is the Soul of the World. The Master Work has two parts, a liquid part called the Elixir of Life that cures all ills, and a solid part called the Philosophers Stone that can transform any metal into gold. The Englishman talks to Santiago about alchemy but feels disappointed with his superficial understanding of the practice.
A war begins in the desert but the caravan reaches the oasis safely. Egypt remains a long distance away, but Santiago feels pleased not to travel in fear any longer.
We finally have an indication of why the book is titled The Alchemist when we meet the Englishman, who travels to meet the alchemist in the desert. The Englishman serves as both a friend and a foil to Santiago during their time together. He represents a worldview we haven’t seen before in the novel: a highly educated Westerner who relies on learning rather than instinct to guide him. Santiago initially bonds with the Englishman, but a major tension exists between the two. Whereas Santiago likes to soak in the experience of the desert and speak to his companions in the caravan, the Englishman loses himself in his books. Though Santiago and the Englishman try to learn from each other’s preoccupations, Santiago by reading about alchemy and the Englishman by observing the desert, each ultimately decides that his own approach to life is the superior one.
The Englishman also plays a vital role in the novel in that he introduces Santiago to the practice of alchemy. The terms and concepts that Santiago learns in the Englishman’s alchemy books represent some of the most important metaphors in the book. Just as Santiago must purify himself from material concerns and external pressures in order to focus on his Personal Legend, alchemists seek to rid metals of impurities in order to reveal the Soul of the World. Also, just as some alchemists study for years to learn something that can be written in just a few lines on the Emerald Tablet, Santiago’s quest for his Personal Legend appears complex and difficult but is quite simple in reality. The analogy between finding the Soul of the World in a metal and finding the Soul of the World through a personal mission to live out one’s Personal Legend becomes more apparent and important as the story continues.
The fact that the novel compares the refinement of metals and humans also has significance. In The Alchemist, one mystical force connects everything, linking people even to inanimate objects and elements like metal. Moreover, Santiago’s Personal Legend centers on finding not just a metaphorical treasure, but an actual treasure. Although he gives up his wealth (his sheep, specifically) for his quest when he sets out, he does so in hopes of finding even more wealth, just as a base metal becomes a more valuable metal through alchemy. We also see over and over in the book that those willing to pursue their Personal Legends enjoy material success in addition to feeling more satisfied with their lives. This arguably materialistic conceit, in which material wealth and spiritual purity go hand-in-hand, sets the belief system of The Alchemist apart from many traditional spiritual belief systems.
Santiago finds another kindred spirit in the camel driver. Much like the crystal merchant, the camel driver devotes himself to Islam and has a strong belief in the world’s interconnectedness. Unlike the crystal merchant, however, he has overcome his complacency. At one point, he lived a life much like that of the crystal merchant. He worked as a gardener and had even made the trip to Mecca that the crystal merchant dreams of. He felt content and prepared to die until an earthquake and flood wiped out his orchard. While difficult, the lesson taught him the importance of overcoming his fear of the unknown and moving forward. The camel driver also invokes the word maktub to stress the inevitability of fate, and his overriding belief in the interconnectedness of the world frees him from the caravan’s fear of the tribal wars. As he believes, anything that happens is meant to happen, including his own death.