Why does Coelho open with the modified myth of Narcissus?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As the Alchemist is reading the Myth of Narcissus, the notion of transformation is evident.  Originally told in its Greek form, the Narcissus myth is extremely sad and depressing.  Narcissus falls in love with his reflection, falls into the lake, and drowns.  Essentially, beauty becomes self- love and represents self- destruction.  However, the alchemist is reading a different version of the myth.  In the version that the alchemist is reading, the lake begins to weep because it sees itself in Narcissus' eyes.  

In the Alechmist's version of the myth, transformation is evident.  There is a transformation from the bleak and painful version of the myth to something more beautiful and redemptive.  In the version that the Alchemist reads, beauty is everywhere.  The same beauty that Narcissus sees, the lake sees in Narcissus' reflection.  In this version, essentially, nature is a mirror and we reflect the beauty in it.  The more beauty we seek to inject into the world, the more beauty there is to see.  It is for this reason that the Alchemist declares this version of the myth "a lovely story."  Coelho starts off with this modified version of the myth to establish that the essence of consciousness as being transformational, to see what is and transform it into what can be.  The other purpose in starting off with this myth is to establish the idea of beauty in the world and the courage to look for it wherever it might exist.  This is something that Santiago takes to heart in his quest for his Personal Legend.

rareynolds eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of the book has to do with transformation and inward spiritual journeys. That is, Santiago travels across the world in search of treasure but what he receives is the wisdom and insight to know that the treasure was always at his home. It is not that his journey was pointless; rather, the point of his journey was something different than what he thought it was.

The Narcissus story quoted at the beginning of the novel encapsulates this thinking. In the retelling of the story, Narcissus’s death in the lake is not the end, but rather, the catalyst for the lake’s own “reflection” on Narcissus. In this version, it is not Narcissus looking at his reflection in the lake that is decisive; it is the lake looking back at Narcissus. The idea that the lake sees its own beauty reflected in the depths of Narcissus's eyes can be understood several ways. First, the lake is admiring its own beauty in the same way that Narcissus does. Second, this appreciation of beauty depends on the relationship between Narcissus and the lake—that is, Narcissus cannot know his own image without the lake, just as the lake gains knowledge of its own beauty because of what it sees in Narcissus’s reflection. Third, this relationship implies the connectedness of all things: it is through others that we come to know beauty. Just as Santiago finds that the purpose of his journey was something other than what he thought, the true purpose of Narcissus’s gaze is something other than mere self-regard.