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Santiago is probably one of those guys with a map over his bed full of pins on every place he's been—and he definitely can't stop talking about his semester abroad.
Santiago wasn't always a shepherd. In fact, he was supposed to be a priest—until he decided he was way too cool for school:
His parents had wanted him to become a priest, and thereby a source of pride for a simple farm family. [. . .] But ever since he had been a child, he had wanted to know the world, and this was much more important to him than knowing God and learning about man's sins. One afternoon, on a visit to his family, he had summoned up the courage to tell his father that he didn't want to become a priest. That he wanted to travel. (1.27)
We're not talking "travel" like backpacking around Europe for the summer after high school; this would be more like telling your parents you want to drop out of college and join the circus, when you've never previously displayed any talent for trapeze work. One thing: notice that he thinks that learning about the world is different than knowing God? Yeah, he'll get that straightened out later on in the novel. In any case, this lets us know that Santiago is a kid with big dreams. He's not content doing what his parents want or what his community expects; he's going to forge his own path in life.
Fortunately, his parents take it fairly well. His dad gives him some gold and his blessing and tells him to become a shepherd, because they're the only ones who travel. Santiago totally digs it:
Whenever he could, he sought out a new road to travel. He had never been to that ruined church before, in spite of having traveled through those parts many times. The world was huge and inexhaustible; he had only to allow his sheep to set the route for a while, and he would discover other interesting things. (1.38)
This is the life for Santiago. Missed a church? No biggie; he can always come back. Bored with this town? Not a problem; on to the next. More than anything, Santiago values freedom. He doesn't want to be tied down to a 9-to-5, and we're pretty sure he's not going to want a house with a white picket fence, either.
Santiago's twin desires (to learn and to travel) are the perfect setup for his next role: treasure hunter. He dreams of a treasure at the pyramids and, instead of just shrugging off the dream and continuing on his way the way any sane person would, he can't shake the idea that there really is a treasure waiting for him.
Now, we all know that hunting treasure isn't easy. There's got to be some booby traps and snares to amp up the action and let the treasure-hunter prove his worth. So it's no surprise when Santiago is immediately robbed of all his savings when he arrives in Africa after the first leg of his journey. Anyone else might have given up and headed back to their sheep, but Santiago just takes it as a chance to prove his resilience:
He realized that he had to choose between thinking of himself as the poor victim of a thief and as an adventurer in quest of his treasure.
"'I'm an adventurer, looking for treasure,' he said to himself. (1.239-40)
In case you were wondering, that turns out to be the right choice. From this moment on Santiago faces more setbacks and more temptations to go back to a comfortable life of sheep and wine, but he continues into the threatening desert in search of his treasure. Moral? Follow your dreams—especially if they don't seem achievable.
So, about those sheep. He loves them because they allow him to travel, roaming all over southern Spain in search of sweet grass. But he's also sometimes exasperated with his sheep for being, well, sheep. They don't think or wonder; they just follow him around and worry about the next blade of grass. This isn't the way Santiago wants to live; he's a thinker and an explorer:
The only things that concerned the sheep were food and water. [. . .] Yes, their days were all the same, with the seemingly endless hours between sunrise and dusk; and they had never read a book in their young lives, and didn't understand when the boy had told them about the sights of the cities. They were content with just food and water, and, in exchange, they generously gave of their wool, their company, and—once in a while—their meat. (1.23)
On Facebook, Santiago would totally be in an "It's complicated" relationship with his sheep. Sure, they're his only friends—but they don't exactly care about him. If he disappeared, you know they'd be wandering off with the next shepherd to lead them to food. Santiago wants a new kind of companion, one who can actually talk to him and teach him things and who might not desert him for sweet patch of clover, or whatever it is that sheep eat.
That complicated relationship might explain why he's so quick to follow Melchizedek's advice to sell off his sheep and head to Africa. The king of Salem is the first person that seems to understand Santiago's need to search for treasure and learn new things, so Santiago trusts him almost like the sheep trust Santiago. In fact, you might almost say that Santiago follows Mechizedek just like a … sheep.
When things get hard in Africa, Santiago is often tempted to go back to Spain and buy a new flock. The sheep, therefore, represent familiarity for Santiago and everything that is comfortable. There are no surprises in the pastures of home, like there are in the desert. No one beats him up and robs him in Spain. Of course, there are no alchemists and Fatimas in the pastures, either, and that's what separates Santiago from the sheep: he's willing to try difficult things in order to learn something new or discover a treasure. He chooses his friends carefully and learns how to speak the Language of the World. In the end, Santiago's a man, not a sheep.
Oh, one last thing. In Christian tradition, Jesus is often depicted as a shepherd—and priests and pastors are said to have "flocks." Hmmmmm.
When Santiago finally meets the alchemist at the oasis, the wise man doesn't exactly give him a warm hug. In fact, he draws a sword and points it at poor unarmed Santiago. The whole thing reminds Santiago of "the image of Santiago Matamoros, mounted on his white horse, with the infidels beneath his hooves. This man looked exactly the same, except that now the roles were reversed" (2.363). In other words, the alchemist reminds Santiago of … another Santiago.
This calls for some detective work.
So, it turns out that Santiago is Spanish for "Saint James," one of the twelve apostles in the New Testaments. There's a legend that says that he miraculously appeared in Spain to fight against the North African invaders, the Moors or moros. For that little hijinks, he earned the nickname "Matamoros" or "Moor-killer" and became the patron saint of Spain. There's even a city named after him in northern Spain.
All right, so we're getting the feeling that Coelho means Santiago to represent his country and its whole history. But what happens when he goes to Africa to seek his treasure? He's the one getting knocked down by a terrifying horseman. (Here's a painting of Santiago Matamoros killing Moors for an idea of how awful it must have been to be on the hoof-side of that fight.) Just like the Moors crossed the sea to invade Spain in the eighth century, Santiago is crossing from Spain into their territory.
So what's the big deal? Maybe Coelho is using Santiago to show us that where you're born and your home culture doesn't necessarily have to define you. Everything gets turned upside down in The Alchemist, with the Spaniard being the one underneath the horse instead of atop it. Santiago has to be willing to let his home, his culture, and his language go in order to learn about the world. In other words, Santiago sheds his assigned culture in order to speak the Language of the World and find his treasure—right back home. Think globally, act locally: maybe that really is the way to find wisdom.