Why does Coelho open The Alchemist with the modified myth of Narcissus? What might he be suggesting about how we perceive ourselves and the world?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, it is ironic that the author prefaces his tale with a story about Narcissus, perhaps the first ego-maniac.

I find it curious that Coelho uses the entire version of the Narcissus tale here—for the rest of the story is so much about being one with the universe. I never get the sense that the story promotes self-interest while ignoring the rest of the humanity. Santiago is a young man with manners. He listens to Melchizedek simply to be polite even when he thinks the "King of Salem" is just a rambling old man. He is not greedy. He does look for treasure, but when he is robbed, he is not so eaten up with the desire for riches that he pushes relentlessly on. In fact, he is ready to stop searching for his Personal Legend and the treasure, and be satisfied caring for his sheep for the remainder of his life. He feels the same way when he meets Fatima. For her, he believes he needs nothing else.

"I want to stay at the oasis," the boy answered. "I've found Fatima, and, as far as I'm concerned, she's worth more than treasure."

It seems to me that the story of Narcissus and the lake shows that everyone is very much the same. Narcissus is said to have been punished because he was such an egotist and so unkind. He drowns, and then the lake becomes salty with tears. We expect it is because the lake cries for the loss of the conceited Narcissus. However, the lake is just as guilty as Narcissus was: she could only see her beauty in his eyes, missing anything significant about him.

It would appear, then, that the story says we are all in the same boat. We all can see only that which pertains to us: it seems a sad commentary that all mankind is described as being like Narcissus.

I must admit, however, that I do not know if I completely understand why the alchemist finds it such a "lovely" tale. Perhaps it is because of the simple-mindedness of the Narcissus and the lake— that they foolishly lose sight of what is important in life, when the answer is there for anyone willing to look beyond the end of his/her own nose.

The alchemist notes:

There is only one way to learn...It's through action.

Perhaps the alchemist sees the tale as "lovely" in a trite and nonsensical way—a whimsical story with a surprise ending. For had Narcissus acted upon anything outside of himself, his fate would have been quite different.