The Alchemist: Santiago’s Four Obstacles

“The Alchemist” by Ricardo Lago, Creative Commons

By Gregory Priest

I want you to imagine for a moment, sometime early in your life when a parent or parental figure told you that you can be anything you want in life. Even if you can’t remember the exact situation or words, I daresay that most people have had that experience. But consider for a moment, at what age did you begin to realize that you couldn’t be the President, or a professional hockey player, or an actress? As Paulo Coehlo writes in his book The Alchemist, “We learn from childhood onward that everything we want to do is impossible. There comes a time when our personal calling is so deeply buried in our souls as to be invisible.” As we explore Coelho’s character Santiago and his personal legend, four obstacles are presented that Santiago must overcome to realize his legend. It is these obstacles, namely disinterring the legend as briefly described above, the interference of love, the fear of failing, and the fear of realizing their dream, which can be used so as to personally connect your own life to the story.

As we explore the first obstacle of disinterring the personal legend, the verb “disinter” is quite telling and brings an instant depth to the underlying principle that after years of life, our personal legend can be buried. defines disinter as, “to take out of the place of interment; exhume; unearth” solidifying the concept that one’s personal legend must be sought or it will lie forever buried. Santiago has two dreams about a child telling him about a hidden treasure near the Pyramids of Egypt and he seeks the counsel of a gypsy woman to interpret his dream. While Santiago is frustrated when she tells him a simplistic answer, “There you will find a treasure that will make you a rich man,” but consider that he has in fact taken an action to uncover his personal legend by questioning his dream. When asked, she tells Santiago that she can only interpret dreams but cannot describe how to bring them to reality. After this encounter, Santiago is faced by his own doubt or emotions thinking to himself, “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” However, after meeting the character Melchiczedek, Santiago now discovers that he has a personal legend, in his mind defined as finding treasure in the desert by the Pyramids. As we prepare to examine the next obstacle, envision Santiago with his personal legend now tangible, walking and thinking to himself, “The wind had brought the Moors, yes, but it had also brought the smell of the desert and of veiled women.” The image conjures allure and mystery. Now, ask yourself, can you recall a time where you were hungry and faintly smelled a delicious aroma emanating from the wind? Were you drawn to find it? Was there a sense of mystery or allure in where the smell was coming from?

The second obstacle is that of the interference of love. It can best heard in the quote, “We know what we want to do, but we are afraid of hurting those around us by abandoning everything in order to pursue our dream.” As Santiago looks deeply into the eyes of Fatima, knowing he can see the Soul of the World, or love, he is now faced with his second obstacle, deciding to stay with the woman he loves or to follow the path of his personal legend. At first Santiago believes that love is more valuable than his treasure and reminds himself that the married shepherds had difficulty convincing their wives to go to distant fields as “love required them to stay with the people they loved.” The concept is not so foreign, as I’m sure many people have passed by opportunities thinking that love was more important. And perhaps rightly so, he believed that if he left for his dream that the love would fall apart. I like to think that Fatima helped overcome these feeling by telling Santiago, “I want my husband to wander free as the wind that shapes the dunes. And, if I have to, I will accept the fact that he has become part of the clouds, and the animals, and the water of the desert.” His encounter with the Alchemist solidifies his decision by telling him, “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure. You’ve got to find the treasure, so that everything you have learned along the way can make sense.” Santiago chooses to continue on his path. As one reflects on Santiago’s choice and how he arrived at his decision, consider that the love he shared with Fatima was mutual. It was by the convergence of his desire to seek his treasure and her openness which allowed his decision. In essence, life had handed him, by fate or otherwise the ability to choose. I daresay that the ability to choose is by far a welcoming feeling that we all share as human beings.

The third obstacle faced by Santiago is the fear of failure. This obstacle is quite easy to empathize with since most, if not all, human beings are faced with repercussions of failure. It is sometimes easier to believe that not trying something is the easier path than trying something and failing. As children, we learn this concept physically and mentally. Consider the child who tries to climb to the top of the slide but falls and skins their knee without reaching the top. If they don’t climb again, they certainly don’t risk skinning their knee, but if they do climb again they are rewarded by the ride down the slide and possibly more importantly the feeling of accomplishment. It is only by these experiences in life where we are rewarded by overcoming the fear of failure that that we develop the appetite to risk in exchange for the reward. In Santiago’s travels in pursuit of his treasure, he has both skinned his proverbial knees and he has tasted success. The fear of failure is best seen in the scene where Santiago is traveling with the Alchemist. The Alchemist tells the warriors that Santiago can make the wind whip up and Santiago fears that he does not know how to make the wind come. Santiago fears failure but Santiago learns to talk and trust his heart and the wind comes, helping him overcome his fears about failing, undoubtedly fueled by his inner recognition that the reward was worth the risk.

So now imagine, Santiago slowly climbing a sand dune. A dune that has taken him years to find. His greatest treasure is expectedly over the hill. As he contemplates how far he has come literally and figuratively, and recalls the obstacles he has hurdled, Santiago is presented with his last obstacle or the fear of realization. In the moments before possibly realizing his personal legend and finding his treasure, one could understand Santiago’s fear should his treasure not be apparent. One could argue that if he fails to find his treasure, his journey would have been all for naught and his purpose in life would have lost meaning. “Be aware if the place where you are brought to tears. That is where I am, and that’s where your treasure is.” Santiago, by this point in his journey, has learned to persevere and continues digging. Even faced by the threat of his own life by men beating him thinking he has more gold than what is in his pockets, he believes in his personal legend and overcomes his fear that he may not find it. Ironically, it is his perseverance that allows him to discover that his actual treasure is located at his home in Andalusia.

So consider now that time you realized that you could not be a professional hockey player just because you wanted to be one. Can you relate to how these stories of Santiago connected to your own life or others around you? Why are people so afraid of realizing their dreams? Did you bury that dream for love? Did you bury it because you were afraid of failure? As you look closely in these examples in your own life, I want you to consider that perhaps Santiago’s treasure and your aspirations of professional hockey was merely an illusion. I would suggest that the true treasure was the journey itself and the blood, sweat, tears and perseverance that were required to have a full understanding of who you are as a person. Through tests, trials on overcoming obstacles, and learning about oneself, the real treasure is living life which is under our noses every day, not the goal or dream that you may think. It may be hard to see but every obstacle in life that we overcome is a notch in our belt of experience. What we may fail to realize is that those moments where we succeed after obstacles or where we pick ourselves back up and try something again with the hope that we can do better on the second try may in fact be our treasures. So as you continue with your life, consider that it is human to desire things and possessions but that nothing can replace the journey.

Submitted for ENG 102, Literature and Composition, Fall 2015.
Instructor: Ron Glaz

Photo Credit: “The Alchemist” by Ricardo Lago. Licensed through Creative Commons.

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