Santiago’s sole possessions in the opening scene are his book and jacket, which he uses not for their originally intended purpose but to make his sleeping space more comfortable. The book he has just finished reading is significant, for it reveals Santiago’s unusual qualities as a shepherd. It is not a novel yet to be read in the future, but one that he has completed, suggesting he is ready to begin another. Melchizedek’s comment that this book is nothing special, but rather reveals the same negative attitude about following dreams as do most books written, invites the reader to consider Santiago’s story as different from others in its positive approach to the fulfillment of one’s Personal Legend.
The majority of the novel takes place in the Sahara desert, which stretches across Egypt and presents various challenges to Santiago and the caravan with which he is traveling. In literature the desert often represents an environment laden with danger, whether snakes, sandstorms, or lack of water. In this epic journey, it is especially fitting because all of these supposed hurdles are revealed to be assets, if only considered in a different way. It is not the natural aspect of the desert that threatens Santiago and his travel companions, but the warring tribesman who find refuge in the sand and even attack the traditionally neutral territory of the Al-Fayoum oasis. While Odysseus faced the trials and tribulations of a trip made primarily over water in the most famous epic journey of all time (in Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey), Santiago confronts similar challenges in the driest of places because, in both stories, the landscape is but a significant backdrop for the inner growth of the protagonist. The desert symbolizes the basic fragility of life, and its presence serves to highlight the welcome sight of date palms and plentiful water in the oasis, where Santiago not coincidentally finds love and mentorship, true refuge from the solitary life alone against the elements in the metaphorical desert that surrounds this small and safe place of security.
Hand that Wrote All
The repeated reference to the hand that wrote all, whether called God or the Source of Creation, is an interesting choice of metaphor given the centrality of reading in the novel. The Hand that Wrote All is a fitting description of the higher power honored by Santiago and The Alchemist as their Creator and Guide, for all the words they read, whether in fiction or books about alchemy, owe the realities they represent to a Being who is represented as a mysterious hand, apparently writing lives independently. By referring to a hand rather than a body to call up an image of the Divine, Coelho separates the Source from his Creation, whether mortals or the natural elements such as wind and sun.
Language of the World
The metaphor employed to suggest the universality of human experience is that of a language without words, a means of mutual understanding across cultural and linguistic barriers. Santiago is surprised to discover he is able to communicate with Arabic speakers through non-verbal signs and suggestions, and he is pleased to realize his efforts are not unique, for all people share a desire to communicate. Coelho employs this universal language of the world to remind the reader that human beings share more than separates them, and although his characters speak either Spanish or Arabic in The Alchemist, those who are described most positively primarily communicate via this other “language” of understanding beyond words.
Santiago turns in his moment of need to the sun, addressing the source of light and heat with honest praise in the hopes it will be able to help him achieve his immediate goal of transforming himself into the wind. The sun represents a friendly natural environment, for despite the dangers of sunstroke in the heat of the desert, Santiago continues to consider the natural elements his allies rather than his enemies. He is rewarded for this confidence in his surroundings, for despite the seemingly impossibility of undergoing this transformation, his speech to the sun about love leads him to the hand that wrote all, and he is aided from above in successfully transforming himself just as the sun transforms the earth from a barren place of mere dirt into a life-giving and sustaining hospitable environment.
Urim and Thummim
The magic stones that Melchizedek gives Santiago to take on his journey bring him comfort as they answer his questions and relieve his doubts about fulfilling his quest. The small stones he keeps in his pocket remind him of the King who bestowed them upon him, along with stories emphasizing the importance of following one’s dreams.
The alchemist’s suggestion to their captors that they release the prisoners should they transform themselves into the wind within three days frightens Santiago, who knows he is unable to perform such a feat. The wind here is both a character and a metaphor in that it speaks to Santiago of its travels, and represents to him the very essence of moving across the world and seeing and appreciating all that lives within it. It is the combination of wind and desert sands that achieve the sandstorm necessary to convince the pair’s captors that they do indeed possess magical abilities and are worthy of freedom. Just as the alchemist is renowned for his ability to transform lead into gold, the wind serves to illustrate the mystical power of any transformation, whether physically from human to wind, or spiritually from boy to man, as in the case of Santiago.