Paulo Coelho’s charming fable The Alchemist is both an enchanting coming-of-age story and an exploration of humanity’s age-old search for the divine. In his journeys, the shepherd boy Santiago experiences a series of progressive revelations of the divine, which profoundly alter his awareness of himself, others, and the world. Indeed, the central theme of the story is a spiritual journey: Santiago’s struggles to ‘heed the omens’ in order to achieve his “Personal Legend” represent a process of epiphany and spiritual growth, one which enables him to see a purposive divine plan in everything.
The first key to understanding Coelho’s depiction of Santiago’s spiritual journey is the metaphor of the physical journey. Specifically, Coelho uses wanderlust, the desire to travel and see new places, as a symbol for the desire to encounter the divine. Thus, Santiago is a wandering shepherd—despite the desires of his “simple farm family” that he become a priest (6). Santiago’s reasons for rejecting the priesthood, and his own thoughts about the divine, are telling: “…ever since he had been a child, he had wanted to know the world, and this was much more important to him than knowing God and learning about man’s sins” (6). Later, while watching the sunrise, Santiago thinks: “I couldn’t have found God in the seminary” (7). Thus, for Santiago, the divine is to be encountered in the world around him: in nature, and in the people he meets. Santiago’s rejection of the priesthood is not a rejection of God and spirituality: it is a rejection of spiritual stasis, as represented by the institutions of organized religion. Santiago is, plainly and simply, a spiritual seeker.