Santiago’s sheep symbolize the sort of existence lived by those who are completely blind to their Personal Legends. Santiago loves his sheep, but he also expresses thinly veiled disrespect for them because of their animal desires for mere food and water. He thinks that his sheep do not appreciate all the wonderful lands that Santiago discovers during his travels. Also, in a disturbing image, he imagines that his sheep are so blindly trusting that he could kill them one by one without them noticing. These sheep symbolize the characters in the book like the baker and the crystal merchant who do not pursue their Personal Legends. Like the sheep, these characters content themselves with their material desires and social acceptance. Accordingly, they lose the ability to appreciate certain aspects of creation, and tend to miss out on many opportunities because of their limited perspectives.
Alchemy, in which a base metal is transformed into a more valuable metal like gold, functions as the dominant symbol in The Alchemist and represents Santiago’s journey to achieve his Personal Legend. The symbol also gives the novel its title. The Alchemist describes the process of turning base metal to gold as equivalent to the base metal realizing its Personal Legend. In the parlance of the book, the metal must rid itself of all impurities to achieve a higher evolutionary state. Similarly, Santiago must rid himself of impurities, such as his desire for his parents’ acceptance, his desire to live as a rich shepherd, and even his desire to live with Fatima, in order to realize his own Personal Legend and achieve a higher state. The way a person learns the craft of alchemy parallels the way in which a person achieves his Personal Legend. As the alchemist tells Santiago, although many tomes have been written about alchemy, these books only complicate the craft. In fact, all the secrets of alchemy exist on the small Emerald Tablet, and these secrets cannot be expressed in words. Likewise, no written instructions can guide a person to his Personal Legend. The person must follow his own instincts and the omens provided by the Soul of the World. The alchemist chooses Santiago as his pupil rather than the Englishman largely because Santiago does not depend on books and reason to understand the world. By listening to the Soul of the World, Santiago ultimately enters into communion with all of nature, including the wind and the sun, and he reaches a higher state of being.
The desert, with its harsh conditions and tribal wars, symbolizes the serious difficulties that await anyone in pursuit of their Personal Legend, but it also serves as an important teacher to Santiago during his journey to the pyramids. As the alchemist puts it, tests are an inherent part of all Personal Legends, because they are necessary to create spiritual growth. More than the desert heat, the desert’s silence, emptiness, and monotony test Santiago. As Santiago learns, however, even the desert, despite appearing barren, contains life and the Soul of the World. Santiago begins to understand his environment, and to see the signs of life in what seems to be a wasteland. Eventually he learns to recognize all of creation in a single grain of sand, and in the greatest test he faces during the book, he finds he is able to enlist the desert in his effort to become the wind.