Although you’ll probably never find this category at the bookstore or on Amazon, there’s a certain genre of books that I like to call “New Age Self-Help Fables.” I’ve read a number of these. They are often novella-length, derived from other stories, and explore such New Age favourite themes as Destiny, Love and The Soul. Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull is one of these books. The less well-known Blue Road to Atlantis by Jay Nussbaum is another. As one of the best-selling books in history, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is the big kahuna of this entire genre. And since there is a definite link between modern Paganism and the New Age movement (which I talk about here), and since there are interesting points in here to followers of any religion (including Paganism) I thought it would be worth sharing my own thoughts on The Alchemist. (Be warned – it’s not easy to talk about The Alchemist without a few spoilers, so if you don’t want some of the key points of the story revealed, don’t read on!)
The Alchemist can be read in one sitting, and reads like a folk or fairy tale. It tells the story of a shepherd boy, Santiago, who has a prophetic dream that he will find treasure if he travels to the pyramids in Egypt. On his adventure, he encounters adversity, lovers and a cast of characters who help him on his way – the most important being the mysterious Alchemist.
Firstly, let’s talk about what Pagans can take from this story. I think that Wiccans and other magic-workers will probably like the “Soul of the World” theme that comes into play – the idea that all things are connected and speak a kind of universal hidden language. This “Soul of the World” hints towards the idea that the universe is conscious (i.e. all things are God), that everyone has a destiny that the universe wants them to achieve, and that the ability to work magic (which does happen later in the story) is simply the ability to communicate in the universal language. Wiccans will probably find this resonates with them very well, as well as the references to actual alchemy.
Now let’s talk about some of the issues I had with The Alchemist. Some would describe the story as “deceptively simple.” But I wouldn’t. It’s just “simple.” Yes, it is allegorical, but it isn’t particularly challenging or original. And its theme that anyone can achieve anything, even miracles, provided they simply follow signs and omens because the universe wants them to achieve, also seems too simplistic to me. Some would argue that this is kind of the point – this book actually advocates simplicity in one’s world-view. At one point, Santiago discovers that the secrets of alchemy are summed up in a single line of symbols on the surface of an emerald, and suggests that one of the other characters (an Englishman) has been wasting his time in trying to uncover alchemy by reading great volumes of academic work. As the character of the Alchemist later reveals, the real secret to alchemy is found more through intuition than by education. But to me, this felt more like wishful thinking than a deep truth.
And that’s really the problem I have with the whole “New Age Self-Help Fable” genre. In short, simple tales, it tries to provide “quick-fix” answers to some of humanity’s deepest philosophical questions. Perhaps I am too much like the Englishman in The Alchemist, and need to be more like Santiago – but I can’t help but feel that the answers to these questions can really only be approached through a long process of contemplation, research and self-discovery (that’s why I’m recording my exploration of Paganism in this blog, because I know it will be a long journey). And even then, we may never find satisfactory answers to our questions. C’est la vie.
A more specific problem I had with The Alchemist was its treatment of women. If we are to take Coelho’s text at face value, women are not necessarily entitled to achieve their destiny – if indeed they have one at all. I am referring to Fatima, who is one of two of Santiago’s love interests (the other is promptly left behind at the beginning and forgotten). When Santiago decides to leave Fatima behind to pursue his destiny, she accepts this – it is her “role” as his lover to let him achieve his destiny and not hold him back. That’s all very well, but what about Fatima’s destiny? What if she was the one who wanted to go off and seek treasure? Or what if it was her destiny to be with Santiago and then he got killed on his downright dangerous trek to the pyramids? The road to achieving one’s destiny would appear to be a man’s one only, and a selfish man’s at that.
It is therefore ironic that one of the revelations in The Alchemist is that the secret universal language is Love. I have to admit, I guessed this from the very first point the universal language was mentioned – love being the secret all-powerful, omnipotent force behind all things is a somewhat hackneyed idea. And I would argue that Coelho doesn’t really show an understanding of what love actually is in this book. I don’t think love is some mysterious force that floats willy-nilly around the universe – it’s something that people create together through commitment, hard work and self-sacrifice. When Santiago leaves Fatima for months on end to pursue his treasure, he isn’t acting on love – he’s acting on desire.
But despite all these criticisms, I have to admit that I enjoyed The Alchemist. I enjoyed it for many of the same reasons I enjoyed Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea – its simple prose is elegant and atmospheric, conjuring beautiful, sensual scenery. I also found the ending strong – one of my pet hates is otherwise good books with poor endings, and The Alchemist’s ending was so satisfying, clever and unexpected (for me) that I couldn’t help but smile when I discovered the twist. What’s more, I think Coelho’s heart is in the right place; encouraging readers to go and pursue their dreams is a noble cause and fills people with hope. In spite of my cynicism, I did find it uplifting. It was worth the very short amount of time I invested reading it.