This is one job description you're not going to find in Shmoop Careers. An alchemist is someone who can turn lead and other base metals into gold. Sound too good to be true? It is; that's why most alchemists historically just wasted a lot of time and money playing mad scientist with their chemistry sets. Regardless, it sounds pretty cool, which is why this totally unscientific science captures the imaginations of so many people.
However, before you get too greedy, keep in mind that alchemy isn't just about purifying metals into gold. It goes along with a whole philosophy about how the alchemist must purify him or herself right along with the metal, which means that someone who is just seeking riches can't ever get the recipe right. Convenient excuse, if you ask us.
Santiago's alchemist, however, definitely knows what's up. He explains that turning metal into gold is a family tradition: "I learned the science from my grandfather, who learned from his father, and so on, back to the creation of the world" (2.483), he tells us, which sounds a lot better than our grandfather's bean dip recipe, which is the only thing he passed along to us. (It's pretty good, tho.) And that explains why he lives in a tent in the desert instead of in a golden castle, even though his family has been making gold for all time: alchemy isn't for the greedy. Right away, then, we know to trust this alchemist. After all, if he weren't trustworthy, he wouldn't be an alchemist.
In case you doubt the alchemist's abilities, he shows them off at the end of the novel. At a monastery he borrows the kitchen, and gets to work:
The alchemist lighted the fire, and the monk brought him some lead, which the alchemist placed in an iron pan. When the lead had become liquid, the alchemist took from his pouch the strange yellow egg. He scraped from it a sliver as thin as a hair, wrapped it in wax, and added it to the pan in which the lead had melted.
The yellow egg is the Philosopher's Stone, that famous rock that allows alchemy to take place, also mentioned in a little book on child-wizards. Okay, so we know he can melt lead, but does the alchemist really know how to make gold? Yep. After all the philosophical talk in the novel, the alchemist is finally showing us some lead-into-gold action: "When the pan had cooled, the monk and the boy looked at it, dazzled. The lead had dried into the shape of the pan, but it was no longer lead. It was gold." (2.691-95)
Okay, so Santiago's a believer and we're starting to wish that this weren't a fictional book ourselves. But the alchemist conveniently keeps his knowledge to himself, telling Santiago that turning lead into gold "was my Personal Legend, not yours [. . .]. But I wanted to show you that it was possible" (2.697). Gee, thanks. Cagey fellow, isn't he?
In seriousness, this little act points us to an interesting aspect of the novel as a whole. It's called The Alchemist and the protagonist spends a lot of time with a real, live alchemist, but this is the only scene where actual alchemy is taking place.
However, there is a lot of discussion about evolving, following a Personal Legend and the Language of the World, which shows us that alchemy isn't just about metal; it's also about purifying the soul. The idea here is that, in the process of purifying metal and helping it evolve to its perfect state, the alchemist shuts out the world and evolves himself.
Sure, it's handy to be able to create your own gold—but the true gift of alchemy is being a purified person.
The alchemist is rumored to be over 200 years old, which means we should cut him a little slack for grumpiness and other attitudes associated with the elderly. But even if he is overly curmudgeonly, we think it might be just for teaching Santiago his lessons.
The day that the caravan containing Santiago arrives at the oasis, the alchemist already knows "that in the caravan there was a man to whom he was to teach some of his secrets. The omens had told him so" (2.218). Surprise! It's not the Englishman; it's actually Santiago. As the alchemist tells him, "You already know all you need to know. I am only going to point you in the direction of your treasure" (2.406).
This all seems nice and hunky-dory, but don't forget that in order to get this close to his new teacher, Santiago had to have his courage tested. Imagine the figure that the alchemist cut on his first appearance on horseback:
Astride the animal was a horseman dressed completely in black, with a falcon perched on his left shoulder. He wore a turban and his entire face, except for his eyes, was covered with a black kerchief. He appeared to be a messenger from the desert, but his presence was much more powerful than that of a mere messenger. (2. 360)
Not scared yet? How about this: "The strange horseman drew an enormous, curved sword from a scabbard mounted on his saddle" (2.361). This guy, with his hidden face, powerful presence, and enormous sword, is beyond grouchy. He's downright terrifying. His power, though, helps tests Santiago's courage. But it's not just for show: the alchemist's terrifying, powerful aura is just the way he carries himself, with his centuries of knowledge showing everywhere he turns.