Consider these two concepts, “magic” and “realism”, these dual words represent the clashing of two obscenely different realities, one of all things imaginary and mystical and the other of the everything firmly rooted in the happenings of the real world, they just don’t quite seem to match, do they? What if I told you that there is an entire branch of literature dedicated to the combination of these two supposedly contradictory ideas: Magical Realism, a literary concept that is expertly woven into the story of The Alchemist by Paul Coelho.
Magical Realism is essentially the integration of magical or mystical things and events into an otherwise mundane world. Within the pages of The Alchemist, set around the time of the middle ages, Santiago is a young shepherd, who herds sheep among the Andalusian mountains of Spain. At the beginning of the book, he does relatively normal things that one would expect for a boy in his position, he lounges in the grass, plays among his sheep, and entertains himself by daydreaming as he covered great distances across the mountains. As the reader ventures deeper into the book, things gradually become stranger.
The boy encounters a gypsy woman who reads his dreams., “I was in a field with my sheep, when a child appeared and began to play with the animals. […] And suddenly, the child took me by both hands and transported me to the Egyptian pyramids. Then, at the Egyptian pyramids, the child said to me, ‘If you come here, you will find your hidden treasure.’” (Coelho, 13) The gypsy woman interpreted the dream as the language of the world, calling towards him to seek his own personal legend, she advised that there could be a great reward for following his legend. After that, the boy ventures across the Mediterranean towards Africa, in search of the pyramids.
Santiago’s journey towards the pyramids lead him to many places, he was scammed in a bar, worked in a crystal shop, and ventured into the desert in the midst of a tribal war. On his trip through the desert, the boy meets a man who obsesses over the arts of alchemy. The man believed that a certain entity existed called the Soul of the World, “In alchemy, it’s called the soul of the world. When you want something with all your heart, that’s when you are closest to the Soul of the World. It’s always a positive force.” (82) After that, the boy reached an oasis, in which they took shelter during the tribal war. Here he meets a true alchemist, who agrees to accompany him into the desert in order to reach the pyramids. However, they are captured by a tribal army, here one of the strangest scenes in the book takes place.
The alchemist strikes a deal with the leader of the army, saying that if the boy could turn himself into the wind within 3 days, they would need to let them go. The tribal leader agrees and the boy, incredibly skeptical of the possibility of success, begins to meditate on a rock. On the rock, he sat straight for two straight days. On the third day, he truly demonstrated the clashing nature of Magical Realism. In this relatively normal world, where people live as shepherds, crystal merchants and tour guides through the desert, the boy began communing with both the desert, the wind, and the sun. First, he began speaking with the desert asking for it to turn him into the wind, but it couldn’t. So, the boy spoke to the wind, asking for it to do the same. But when the wind tried and failed, erupting into a sandstorm in frustration. Santiago then asked the sun. And when even the sun failed, he turned to the Hand That Wrote All (God). When touching the hand, something happened to Santiago, “The boy reached through to the Soul of the World and saw that it was part of the Soul of God. And he saw that the Soul of God was his own soul. And that he, a boy, could perform miracles.” (160) As the sandstorm ground to a stop, the boy was no longer on his rock but instead was on the other side of camp.
The paradoxical idea of Magical Realism may be confusing at first, the unique style originated in Latin America, giving The Alchemist, a book translated from Portuguese, a somewhat unique style that can be perplexing. To better introduce the idea of Magical Realism within The Alchemist, I will be drawing connections between this book and one of the most read books in high school, Animal Farm by George Orwell.
Although the Animal Farm was essentially a giant metaphor criticizing the Russian revolution, when reading the book, many people likely questioned the legitimacy of the novel’s setting. At the beginning of the book, Mr. Jones, the owner of Manor Farm, gets drunk and is annoyed by the noises his animals are making in the barn. He gets out his rifle and begins shooting at his farm to quiet down the animals. While a bit extreme, this scenario is entirely possible within the real world. What is not possible, however, is the scene that follows. The animals on the farm were not simply making noise, they were actually cheering in response to a speech made by the prize boar on the farm, Old Major.
Believe it or not, sentient talking animals are a major aspect of Magical Realism. Inside Animal Farm, every animal can speak, and even though some animal is smarter than others, even the dumbest of animals can easily speak and the smartest, which are mostly pigs, can easily interact with others on the same level as humans can. The pigs have even undergone trade with humans from other farms, demonstrating that they have an understanding of basic economics and can effectively communicate with humans.
The pool of books incorporating Magical Realism into their stories is ever growing, and books such as The Alchemist, as well as Animal Farm, have achieved global recognition. When reading Magical Realism, anything can happen. Will the character your reading about, who is currently washing dishes at home, traverse to the land of the dead? Or will the cat of your favorite protagonist morph into a giant beast? The potential of this genre could be limitless, the only question now is not ‘if’, but ‘when’ the next best novel comes from this new frontier.