By Paulo Coelho
New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1993
ISBN # 0-06-250218-2 (paper)
174 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
November 2009

This is a lovely book, tender but profound. It is about the importance of seeking one’s own meaning of life and spending one’s life fulfilling it. Coelho calls it seeking one’s “Personal Legend.” It reminds me very much of what the Existentialists would have called “authenticity.” However, unlike the Existentialists who write rather darkly about this process of seeking one’s own meaning system, Coelho’s young shepherd boy is seeking his Personal Legend in something much like a fairly tale. However, Coelho at least gives us a process and set of obstacles we might well expect, and his hero fulfills all four:

First one must discover that our lives are dictated by custom, family, law and tradition and we must be willing to overcome these in order to seek our own unique Personal Legend.

If we get to this first stage we may well run up against love as an obstacle, particularly in believing that in order to have the love of some other we must give up our own Personal Legend and live in a way that the other needs for us. On the author’s view this is a mistaken notion of love.

“You must understand that love never keeps a man from pursuing his Personal Legend. If he abandons that pursuit its because it wasn’t true love .. the love that speaks the Language of the World.”

Supposing one gets past that second stage and realizes love is not incompatible with one’s Personal Legend, then one is likely to run into grave difficulties in realizing this legend and be tempted to give up. It is just too hard. But that would be the great tragedy of one’s life, one would have given up what makes life worthwhile in order to avoid the hardships perhaps required to get there.

“My heart is a traitor,” the boy said to the alchemist, when they had paused to rest the horses. “It doesn’t want me to go on.”

“That makes sense,” the alchemist answered. “Naturally it’s afraid that, in pursuing your dream, you might lose everything you’ve won.”

“Well, then, why should I listen to my heart?”

“Because you will never again be able to keep it quiet. Even if you pretend not to have heard what it tells you, it will always be there inside you, repeating to you what you’re thinking about life and about the world.”

“You mean I should listen, even if it’s treasonous?”

“Treason is a blow that comes unexpectedly. If you know your heart well, it will never he able to do that to you. Because you’ll know its dreams and wishes, and will know how to deal with them.”

Shortly after this, they return to this hard subject of discouragement and seeming failures:

“My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the boy told the alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky.

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

“Every second of the search is an encounter with God,” the boy told his heart. “When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve known that every bout was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.”

Finally, when one has embraced all the hardships and fought for and discovered one’s Personal Legend, then one is likely to run into the fourth and last obstacle: guilt. We look around us and see that so many others have not achieved this Personal Legend and we become embarrassed that we have and tend to want to deny it or hide it. This too is an obstacle we must overcome. And so we follow this shepherd boy in sort of a pilgrimage from stage one through the final achievement of his Personal Legend. It takes him far from home, through many adventures, failures and successes, and changing notions of what his own Personal Legend is after all.

Coelho writes a beautiful and moving legend of the boy’s journey and enlightenment. I did find the title rather odd. There is an alchemist in the novel whom the shepherd boy meets and who, indeed, helps him in many ways and actually sort of makes the shepherd boy into an alchemist himself. But the use of the definite article “the” in the title seems a bit confusing. It would seem, on Coelho’s account, that anyone who actually achieves his or her Personal Legend becomes “an” alchemist, changing the baser life we have from birth into the gold of our own Personal Success. But this is a journey upon which any person may embark.

On the other hand Coelho seems right to me in bringing in the influential alchemist whom the boy meets in the north African desert. I think most of us who have seriously undertaken this journey meet people along the way who teach us and inspire us toward this mysterious and even occult route toward our Personal Legend. I’m 70 now and still on my journey, and like the boy, have arrived at various stages I once was almost sure were arrival points, only to discover another stage of enlightenment along the way.

Everyone who is such a seeker should read this optimistic book of one who seems to have succeeded in the process of turning a potentially base life into a golden achievement, a true alchemist’s conversion.

Bob Corbett


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