Magical realism, or magic realism, is a narrative technique that blends reality with the fantastic. Both the ordinary and the extraordinary are presented as a matter of fact, and there is usually a strong hint of social criticism that runs throughout the narrative. This is certainly what Coelho does in The Alchemist. Santiago, an ordinary shepherd, embarks on a journey to realize his Personal Legend. While the first few pages are grounded in reality, the move to the fantastic soon occurs. The young shepherd meets an extraordinary man who claims to be the King of Salem. Melchizedek is his real name; he is a character from the Bible. In The Alchemist, he helps those who are at the point of discovering and following their Personal Legends.
One of the basic tenets of magical realism is that the universe wants one to succeed: if one is following one’s “true path,” then forces will conspire to help. Melchizedek explains that “there is a force that wants you to realize your Personal Legend…[but] in order to find the treasure you will have to follow the omens.” Magical realism calls for people to take an active role in pursuing their dreams by paying attention and acting on lessons learned in life; success without effort will not happen.
Omens are an important element of magical realism for Coelho and other authors who adhere to this technique. Santiago will be shown many signs along the way that he will have to properly interpret in order to move forward. Some of these omens are a butterfly that represents both change and freedom, the hawks that portend danger in the oasis, and the scarab beetle Santiago finds at the pyramids that tells him where to dig.
Santiago’s journey is rife with magical realism; the ordinary and extraordinary are constantly blended. Melchizedek gives the boy two deceptively simple-looking stones that have magical divining powers. They are called “Urim and Thummim.” These stones are a fortune telling device that in a tight spot will help Santiago by giving him a clear yes-or-no answer to his queries. The stones are used only once, however, because knowing too much about the future can be a hindrance: life is full of obstacles, and it does not help to know the suffering one will have to endure along the way. It is enough to know that there is no such thing as luck or coincidence. All things happen for a reason, and all are a part of the “mysterious chain.”
Implicit in magical realism is a criticism of society. In Santiago’s life, he has to overcome many naysayers, such as his father and the crystal merchant, who tell him his dream is impossible. These characters are older people who have, for one reason or another, let fear kill their own dreams. Coelho is critical not just of those who have failed in their own lives but even more so of those who try to foist their bitterness off on others who actively pursue their dreams.
The most explicit examples of magical realism can be found in the final sections of Part II, in which Santiago is able to speak to the desert, the wind, and the sun; he convinces all of these entities to help him prove to the tribal leaders that he is an alchemist.
Finally, magical realism in the novel comes full circle when a robber boy tells Santiago that his treasure is really to be found at the starting point of his journey—the shepherd’s barn in Spain. Santiago is rewarded by the universe for his tenacity and enthusiasm. The universe conspired to help him as he helps himself by learning patience, staying the course, and properly interpreting the omens along the way.
The numbers four, three, and two are important thematically. An appreciation for their placement will aid in understanding The Alchemist.
Four is the number of the elements (earth, wind, sun, and water). There are four obstacles in Santiago’s path to realizing his personal legend: being told from childhood that his dreams are impossible, fear of hurting those he loves, fear of defeat, and fear that he does not deserve success.
Four days pass when Santiago first makes his way into the village to sell his sheep’s wool. The alchemist breaks up and distributes the gold he has created into four parts: one for himself, one for the monk, one for Santiago, and he has the monk hold the fourth section for Santiago, should he ever need it.
The number three, however, is by far the most important recurring number in the novel. Three has biblical allusions in that the Holy Trinity is composed of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The references to the number three begin immediately. When Santiago longs to stay with the girl he meets in the marketplace, he fears that her father will keep him waiting for “three days.” In Judaism, three has two holy meanings: the first is the Trinity, and the second is symbolic of waiting for God’s intervention, something Santiago will experience time and again.
The references to three are many. Santiago’s father gives him “three ancient Spanish coins” to begin his journey. When Santiago leaves the crystal merchant, he fills three sacks. There are three characters who speak to one another in the caravan: Santiago, the Englishman, and the caravan leader. The alchemist and Santiago travel for three days and observe the armed tribesmen. Three armed tribesmen take the alchemist and Santiago prisoner. The captors tell the pair that they were “seen at the enemy camp three days ago.” The alchemist says that Santiago needs three days to turn himself into the wind. On the third day,...
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Santiago’s repeated dream of treasure by the Pyramids reveals the importance of dreams generally in the novel, and not just literal ones. This particular dream is presented as key, and both the fortune teller and Melchizedek encourage Santiago to follow it literally. But the centrality of dreams in the novel is based more generally on the idea that youthful hopes for the future should not be displaced as one ages, but rather should be held on to and pursued with passion throughout one’s life. Santiago is in this way an everyman hero in that he holds fast to his dream despite discouraging events such as the theft of his money in the marketplace. Coelho suggests that because he has his dream to fall back on, even material deprivations cannot discourage the boy from pursuing his goal and following his dream, literally of the Pyramids and figuratively of leaving the comforts of home for a great adventure. Unlike the baker or crystal merchant, who, like most, prioritized material success and comfort over following the dreams of their youth, Santiago experiences the joy that accompanies fulfillment of one’s spiritual quest.
A secondary theme in The Alchemist is that of love, which Santiago craves at the novel’s opening as he fantasizes about his next encounter with the merchant’s daughter with whom he spoke briefly the previous year. He is young and alone, and wishes heartily for true companionship, which he hopes to find with the beautiful girl with the raven hair. However, in recounting her reaction to his literacy, she seems limited in her ability to appreciate his desire for something more in life, a passion that is recognized and esteemed by Fatima, whom he meets in the oasis as he attempts to discover his Personal Legend. Her love is of a different variety, one that encourages him to soar to new heights rather than asks him to clip his wings to stay with her. Fatima expresses her love as a wish to be with Santiago once he has found himself and is ready to share with another.
The term that Melchizedek, Santiago and the Alchemist use to refer to the realization of human potential is different from most and is a central theme of the novel. While the metaphors of dreams and quests are present, the Personal Legend symbolizes elements of both and adds a further dimension of uniqueness for being a term new and different in this novel. It possesses an aura of magic and mysticism, and yet is basically the same concept as the age-old belief in fulfilling one’s destiny as though it is an adventure story in the process of being written.
Another important motif in the novel is that of reading, not just books, but the world. Reading serves a central function in The Alchemist, as Santiago and other characters attempt to make sense of the world around them through written words, only to learn that a deeper understanding can be achieved through the act of living itself. Santiago thus applies the same skill he attained at the seminary to literally “reading” the world, most notably in interpreting the flight of the hawks, which earns him recognition both by the alchemist and the tribal chieftains of Al-Fayoum who invite him to stay. But Santiago is not finished reading the world written by the hand that wrote all, and he embarks on the second phase of his quest with the knowledge that the stories most worthy of his attention do not reside in books.