In Coelho's The Alchemist, when Santiago begins his trek across the desert, he meets an Englishman who is a student of alchemy. In many ways they are alike: both are pursuing their "Personal Legends," both have encountered the ideas of alchemy. How is their approach to life and learning different?
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In Coelho's The Alchemist, the Englishman is a foil for Santiago. In other words, he shares some similarities with Santiago, but is so different in other ways that specific aspects of Santiago's character come into sharper focus for the reader.
For instance, perhaps the most important thing the two individuals have in common is their search for the alchemist. However, while Santiago is looking for his Personal Legend in order to find his purpose, happiness and things he has dreamed of, the Englishman believes his Personal Legend will lead him to learn how to turn common metals into gold.
When the Englishman lends his books to Santiago, and the boy encourages the Englishman to learn by listening to nature and searching for omens, neither is successful. Santiago desire is not based upon amassing a fortune; the Englishman finds no understanding of self or the world around him in listening to the nature, or watching for portentous signs along the way. Each admits that what drives the other does not work for him. So both return to those ways of discovering the world with which they are most comfortable.
The boy went back to contemplating the silence of the desert, and the sand raised by the animals. "Everyone has his or her own way of learning things," he said to himself. "His way isn’t the same as mine, nor mine as his. But we’re both in search of our Personal Legends, and I respect him for that."
This theme of taking in the secrets/beauties of nature is seen several times throughout the story. Melchizedek, the King of Salem, tells Santiago about the wisest man in the world. An explorer visits the wise man's palace, and is sent throughout the grounds with a spoonful of oil, instructed not to spill it. When he returns from his trek, he is asked what he saw. However, the young man missed everything because he was so involved in not spilling the oil. The wisest of men says:
The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.
The Englishman is so intent upon finding the alchemist and the secret to changing metal to gold that he neglects to observe the wonders of the world he is moving through. Contrary to the Englishman, Santiago learns to listen to the wind, the camels, etc. In this way he knows things that are going to happen before they do: in this way he warns the leaders at the oasis of the threat of impending danger/attack. While the Englishman will never realize his Personal Legend in the manner in which he is proceeding, Santiago learns so much more than he knew of himself or the world compared to when he started his journey:
I learned the alchemist’s secrets in my travels. I have inside me the winds, the deserts, the oceans, the stars, and everything created in the universe. We were all made by the same hand, and we have the same soul.
The Englishman sees no underlying purpose, no greater power at work in the world:
Luck and coincidence...It's with those words that the universal language is written.
Santiago looks at things differently—his experiences are the result of a greater power in the universe, not luck or coincidence. There is purpose in catastrophe or success; there is perfect purpose in the meeting of the King of Salem, the gypsy, the crystal merchant, the Englishman, and the alchemist.
When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.
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