Another Trip Down Enlightenment Lane: BBE on Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist
We are back to Books We Hate this week, the subject? Paulo Coelho’s classic hit, The Alchemist. What soulless ghoul hates this book that has inspired so many people, sold millions of copies, and been translated into dozens of languages?? Well, if you’ve been keeping track of our episodes, you know that Jennifer is that ghoul. Yes, it was Jennifer’s turn to pick a book she hated for Paige to read, and it is Jennifer that hated The Alchemist so much that she put it down after getting through maybe forty pages. Keep in mind, this was back when it was a point of pride for Jennifer to struggle through to the bitter end no matter how terrible she thought the book was. Jennifer hated it so much that apparently her brain tried to wipe out the traumatic experience entirely because she can’t even remember when it was that she attempted this read. Something about the dreamy, symbol-laden parable really irritated a very pragmatic past Jennifer, but it remains to be seen if Paige will agree.
Coelho is best known for The Alchemist, first published in Portuguese in 1988. According to his Wikipedia page (which he potentially contributes to himself?), Coelho had a rather checkered past before he began his writing career. Though his parents were dead set on him entering the priesthood – possibly an inspiration for his character, Santiago – Coelho dreamed from an early age of being a writer. This eventually would happen, but not until after a nomadic and apparently drug-fueled lifestyle through South American, North Africa, Europe, and beyond. Undoubtedly his experiences traveling provided some inspiration for the journey parable found in The Alchemist. Though he had enjoyed a successful career as a songwriter after returning to Brazil in the 1970s, he did not feel fulfilled because he had never abandoned his dream of writing – his Personal Legend, if you will. So he began to write books, the first being Hell Archives. He would not find success with his first, second, or even third book, but in 1988 he felt inspired to write his classic in only two weeks, quite a feat for any author. Since then, he has been prolific, though none of his other works have been received with the same critical acclaim.
In this episode, Paige takes the reader through the adventures of the shepherd, Santiago, a boy once destined for the priesthood, and now set on finding fantastical wealth. After first being inspired by the wise man, Melchizedek, to begin this journey to find the fulfillment sadly lacking in the ushering of sheep from one place to another, Santiago journeys through north Africa on his way to the pyramids. Along the way he is helped or hindered by various characters, but ultimately learns more about himself, and how he relates to the larger world. As most journeys away from home, this is an eye-opener for Santiago. What was particularly irritating for Paige, other than the basics of the message, was that much of the terminology found in The Alchemist was an echo of what she already slogged through reading The Celestine Prophecy. Really, the similarities are eerie, as we discuss in the episode. Like most parables, The Alchemist is also…basic. The story is not complicated, in fact, it is so simple that Paige and Jennifer were looking for symbols that are not actually there other than the simple archetypes that the characters represent.
Coelho was surprised by the success of his book, and honestly so are we. Kind of. While this new age-y, woo-woo, follow-your-dreams message has become worn out and tired, it still sells. The thriving MLM market is enough evidence of that. Our social media feeds are often drowning in individual appeals to join the family, be part of an amazing community, find fulfillment and financial freedom. Of course this is all achieved through purchasing mostly non-FDA approved products that promise to revolutionize X, Y, and Z – but never mind that. The message is the same as so many others we have heard before: be true to yourself, listen to your intuition, get back to Nature, pursue your Personal Legend. See, it fits right in.
Looking at reviews of The Alchemist, it appears to be a polarizing read. You either really loved it and it changed your life, or you found its message to be simplistic, cheesy, superficial, or sometimes even offensive on a personal level. Does this speak to each individual’s own level of cynicism that we often reject positive messages like those listed above? Or is it because we recognize that sometimes intuition fails, sometimes dreams die, sometimes the wind fails to speak, and the universe fails to provide? Paige gave this book a solid three stars. Much as we have rolled our eyes at Coelho’s work, it is hard to completely trash a book that pushes such a positive message, naive or no. It’s popularity, similar to that of The Celestine Prophecy, speaks to its efficacy. Who knows, maybe you should give it a try?
To pursue your Personal Legend, listen to the links below:
- If you want more info on Melchizedek the Biblical character, check this page out.
- If you want, you can check out Coelho’s personal website, but…there have been many things that were less of a mess, tbh.
- Course Hero has a wonderful YouTube series on The Alchemist that includes, summary and analysis of themes.
- Coelho himself published a short article on his website about ten life lessons that can be drawn from his work. Definitely give this a read to learn about messages included in the text beyond just ‘pursuing your dreams’, which is what they have been boiled down to in this post. Truly, they are great mantras to incorporate into your life when possible.
- As discussed on this week’s episode, Coelho also possibly edits his own Wikipedia page, which makes it both more and less accurate?
Tune in next Monday for Episode 1.7. If you’re enjoying the podcast so far, please consider leaving us a review and follow us on social media if that is your thing (links above). Be sure to check out our Patreon for extra BBE content as well, including bonus episodes. Until next time!