The Alchemist By Paulo Coelho Summary and Analysis Part 2: Caravan Episode

Summary

Santiago and the Englishman join the caravan, which consists of over two hundred people. Just before they leave, the Englishman says "There's no such thing as coincidence." Santiago reflects that "The closer one gets to realizing his Personal Legend, the more that Personal Legend becomes his true reason for being . . ."

Crossing the desert with the caravan, Santiago wonders if he is learning the "universal language that deals with the past and the present of all people." Santiago's mother referred to this knowledge as a hunch, while the crystal merchant used the term maktub ("it is written"); it could also be called intuition. Santiago throws his book away once he realizes that he will learn more from the caravan and the camel driver and also by observing his own camel.

At night, the camel driver tells Santiago about his former life as a farmer outside Cairo with an orchard full of fruit. He had children and land and he took an opportunity to make the same pilgrimage to Mecca that the crystal merchant spoke of. The Nile flooded its banks, however, destroying his fruit trees and forcing him to become a camel driver. As a result, he learned a painful but important lesson: There is no need to fear the unknown if you can achieve what you need to survive.

Because of the threat of danger, the caravan starts to travel faster and more quietly. The caravan leader decides that they should no longer light a fire after dark. One night, when the Englishman can't sleep, he asks Santiago about his experiences with the crystal merchant and is impressed by what he hears. "That's the principal that governs all things," the Englishman explains. "In alchemy, it's called the Soul of the World. When you want something with all your heart, that's when you are closest to the Soul of the World. It's always a positive force."

Santiago tries to read the Englishman's books. They are strange books, however, covering the properties of mercury and salt, discussing kings and dragons. And they assert one proposition above all others: that "all things are the manifestation of one thing only." In fact, the most significant text in all of alchemy consists of only a few lines once etched on the surface of an emerald. If the truth of everything is written on the surface of a single precious stone, Santiago wonders, why do people need to read so many big books?

The one book that interests Santiago the most tells the life stories of famous alchemists, who dedicated their lives to purifying metals. These alchemists believed that if they heated a metal for many years, it would free itself of its individual properties, leaving behind the Soul of the World. The Soul of the World allowed alchemists to understand everything on earth, since it was "the language with which all things communicated." The alchemists called the discovery of this language the Master Work.

Santiago learns that the Master Work is composed of two parts, one liquid and one solid. (It is unclear how something can be liquid and solid as well as a language and also a soul.) The liquid portion is known as the Elixir of Life, which cures illnesses and is responsible for keeping alchemists young. The solid part of the Master Work is called the Philosopher's Stone, a small sliver of which is all that's needed to turn any metal into gold.

Everyone in the caravan is on edge, wary of anything that might hint of a raid by one of the warring desert tribes. Only Santiago's friend the camel driver seems unconcerned. He tells the shepherd boy the reason he is unafraid of the war between the tribes is because he lives only in the present. "If you can concentrate always on the present, you'll be a happy man," he says. "Life will be a party for you, a grand festival, because life is the moment we're living right now."

Analysis

In the words of the camel driver, "We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it's our life or our possessions and property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written with the same hand."

This lesson seems consistent with maktub ("it is written"), the philosophy that prevented the crystal merchant from actively pursuing his dream of visiting Mecca — from trying, that is, to fulfill his Personal Legend. Here, though, Coelho gives it a positive spin: It is our duty to take what life gives us, the author seems to be saying through his character the camel driver, and make the best of it.

Note that although Santiago is not looking to understand the language of the world, he is inadvertently learning to do so. While his own quest is towards his Personal Legend and thus a buried treasure, the simple Spanish shepherd boy cannot help but start to become one with the universe.

He does so by traveling through worlds that are new to him (Tangier, the Sahara), and by observing a new religion (Islam) and new peoples (Arabs and Africans). As Santiago tells the Englishman, still lost in his books in the midst of the desert, "You should pay more attention to the caravan . . . We make a lot of detours, but we're always heading for the same destination."

In talking to Santiago about his experiences at the crystal shop, the Englishman makes a statement that is central to The Alchemist's philosophy — that "the earth is alive . . . and it has a soul. We are part of that soul, so we rarely recognize that it is working for us. But in the crystal shop you probably realized that even the glasses were collaborating in your success." Although this idea is new to Santiago, the attribution of spirits to inanimate objects is a form of religion common to many primitive cultures known as animism.

Santiago's discovery that the surface of a single emerald contains the world's most important knowledge points out another of The Alchemist's fundamental propositions: that books should be straightforward and easy to understand. People make all things, including their books, too complicated, and eventually they cannot return to the simple truths that everyone once knew.

Santiago begins to wonder if, in working for the crystal merchant, he was engaged in a kind of alchemy. The Englishman, by contrast, believes that alchemy can be learned only from a master alchemist and after reading many difficult books on the subject. This is another instance of The Alchemist's point of view that experience is the best teacher. The episode's final lesson, delivered to Santiago by the camel driver, is not inconsistent with this — that living in the present is the richest, most rewarding way of life.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

How does the alchemist claim to know that Santiago would be coming?




Quiz