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The Alchemist is a novel written in two parts and an epilogue. It revolves around an Andalusian shepherd named Santiago and his quest for his own Personal Legend, which takes him from his village to the pyramids of Egypt. In his travels he meets a series of characters who either directly help him or teach him a valuable lesson by example.
Melchizedek and the alchemist become mentors, while the Englishman provides and example of what happens if you hope to acquire knowledge mainly from books, and the crystal merchant shows him the type of life one leads if one doesn't heed a Personal Legend. The Alchemist is set in a universe where every being has its own Personal Legend, and where the world has a soul, which is shared by everything, from living beings to rough matter.
Santiago is a young shepherd from Andalusia and is happy about an upcoming trip to a town where he had been the previous year, as he had met a girl he got infatuated with. She is the daughter of a merchant who buys wool from him, a man with trust issues who demands Santiago shear his sheep in front of him in order to avoid any fraud. He sleeps in an abandoned church, where he has a recurring dream involving the sight of pyramids. When he explains it to a gypsy woman, she interprets it pretty straightforwardly, saying that he must indeed travel to Egypt to find a buried treasure. At first he is hesitant because he enjoys his life as a shepherd and he had to go against his parents' will to pursue it, since they wanted him to become a priest.
He then runs into an old man who is named Melchizedek, who explains the concept of “Personal Legend,” which is the personal fulfillment everyone is bound to pursue. It is "what you have always wanted to accomplish. Everyone, when they are young, knows what their Personal Legend is." He tells him he must listen to omens in order to find his treasure, and he gives him two magic stones, Urim and Thummim, which answer “yes” and “no” to the questions he can't find an answer to by himself.
Santiago makes it to Tangier after selling his sheep, but once there, he is robbed of all his money by a man who had told him he could take him to the pyramids. This doesn't faze him too much, as he starts working for a crystal merchant, actually bolstering his employer's business with his clever ideas. The crystal merchant used to have a Personal Legend himself-making a pilgrimage to Mecca-, but he gave up on it.
Once Santiago makes enough money, he is unsure what to do. Eleven months have passed, and he is unsure whether he should return to Andalusia to buy sheep with his earnings or proceed with his quest. He eventually joins a caravan to travel to the pyramids. There, he meets a fellow traveler, known as the Englishman, who dabbles in alchemy. He is headed to the Al-Fayoum oasis to meet an alchemist, as he hopes to learn how to turn any metal into gold. While traveling in the desert, Santiago learns how to get in touch with the Soul of the World.
Wars are simmering in the desert, so the caravan remains at the oasis for the time being. Santiago decides to help the Englishman find the alchemist. Their source of information is Fatima, a girl he meets as she is collecting water from the well and with whom he promptly falls in love. He proposes marriage to her, and she consents, provided that he completes his quest. She is a “desert woman” who can read the omens, and knows that everybody has to leave before returning.
After venturing out in the desert, Santiago has a vision, courtesy of two hawks attacking one another, of the oasis being attacked. Attacking an oasis is a violation of the rules of the desert, so he relates it to the chieftains, but they say that he will have to pay with his life if the oasis does not end up being attacked. Soon after this vision, he meets a stranger wearing black garbs sitting atop a white horse who reveals himself to be the alchemist.
The oasis does get attacked, and thanks to Santiago's warning, the dwellers are able to defeat the raiders. This does not go unnoticed by the alchemist who, in turn, decides to mentor Santiago and to help him reach the pyramids. However, they're soon captured by another group of warriors in the desert. The alchemist tells Santiago that, in order to progress with the trip, he should become the wind.
Being more and more acquainted with the Soul of the World, Santiago concentrates on the desert and eventually manages to become the wind. This scares the captors, who promptly free both him and the alchemist.
They make it to a monastery, where the alchemist turns some lead into gold and divides it. His journey stops here, as he has to return to the oasis, but Santiago proceeds, and eventually reaches the pyramids. He starts digging in the place he dreamt about finding his treasure, but is ambushed by raiders and takes a severe beating. One of the raiders, upon inquiring about what Santiago was doing there, derides him for his dream, mentioning that he had a dream about a treasure buried by an abandoned church in Spain, and that he was not stupid enough to pursue it.
This gives Santiago the answer he was looking for. Once he returns to the church in Spain, he promptly digs up the treasure, remembers he owes a fraction of it to the gypsy woman, and decides to reunite with Fatima.