Was Paulo Coelho’s ‘The Alchemist’ Inspiration for ‘Philosopher’s Stone’?

If you gathered in one place every writer in the last twenty years who was inspired to sit down and start writing the novel of his or her dreams by the success ‘out of nowhere’ of J. K. Rowling and her Harry Potter novels, my guess is that city would rival Mexico City or at least London with respect to the number of inhabitants (and what a metropolis of lost souls that would be!). My thought-question for Potter Pundits this week is, “Was Rowling similarly inspired by a run away out-of-nowhere best seller from a ‘nobody’ to start writing her magical seven book series?”

I think it very probable that she was, though in all my years of Potter puttering I’ve never seen this specific influence suggested. The author and book I have in mind, for example, doesn’t make the extensive to the point of absurdity Wikipedia list of ‘Rowling Influences and Analogues.’

The novel is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It has supposedly sold over 65 million copies and that figure means it is ranked in the top twenty best selling books of all time (see here, here, and here). If you haven’t read the book, here are three things I’ve learned after finally reading it myself.

  • Coelho’s Publication Story is as Miraculous as Rowling’s: He wrote The Alchemist in two weeks. He is Brazilian, so it is in Portugese. A publisher picked it up, it sold reasonably well (900 copies!), but they gave up on it and returned the publication rights to the author. He found another Brazilian publisher, a larger house, to pick it up and the second edition sold very well — in Brazil and Portugal. In 1993, HarperCollins publishes the translation in English and The Alchemist begins its climb to juggernaut status.
  • It’s More Jonathan Livingstone Seagull than War and Peace: The take-away of the story is that, if you only believe in yourself and your dream long enough, “the universe will conspire to make your dream come true.” It’s not literature by any stretch but it is an uplifting couple of hours you won’t regret spending; think The Little Prince, The Life of Pi, even The Shack. Matt Morris ranks The Alchemist as ‘The Best Self Help Book of All Time.’
  • It Really Does Feature an Alchemist: Well, eventually. And it isn’t literary alchemy like Shakespeare, Nabokov, C. S. Lewis, Rowling, Collins, or Meyer writes. But it is fun and communicates a core truth of the alchemists, what Rowling on PotterMore says is that it is a “spiritual journey” and that there is “a mystical element to the work.” 

Why do I think it likely, even probable, that Rowling was inspired by Coelho’s unlikely success to give her books an alchemical twist?

(1) The Rowling-Potter Timeline: Rowling has her train delay inspiration for Harry’s character and story in July of 1990. She moves to Portugal in 1991 after her mother’s death and lives there until December 1993. These are the year’s of The Alchemist’s breaking all sales records for books in Portuguese. It would have been impossible for her to have been a reading person alive in Porto, Portugal, in these years and not been aware of The Alchemist and Coelho’s rags to riches story.

(2) The Stories: Each is a there and back again coming of age adventure about a young man realizing his unbelievable destiny via making the sacrificial hard choices.

(3) The Alchemy: Each of the boys is guided by an alchemist whose teaching is about the unity of all things in the consciousness fabric of reality. And the transformation in Santiago, the boy hero of The Alchemist, is as magical and wonderful as what Harry discovers about himself and the world at Hogwarts.

One more note before I let you go to read the story — Coelho has made it free for anyone to download online — Rowling’s first drafts of Philosopher’s Stone was much more obviously alchemical than the one published in 1997.

There were several discarded opening chapters for Book 1, one of which had a muggle betraying the Potters, one had a character called ‘Pyrites,’ whose name means ‘fools gold’ meeting Sirius in front of the Potter’s house. Pyrites was a servant of Voldemort. …

Very early page of Book1: Argis Pyrites mentioned as author of Alchemy, Ancient Art and Science

Rowling also writes on PotterMore that Alchemy was the original Potions class at Hogwarts:

A slightly different list of school subjects appears in my earliest notes. Herbology is called ‘Herbalism’, Divination is compulsory from the first year, as are Alchemy and a subject called simply ‘Beasts’, whereas Transfiguration is called ‘Transfiguration/Metamorphosis’

Rowling was even dreaming about alchemists when she started writing Stone. You’ll forgive me for thinking that Severus Snape was originally conceived us as Argis Pyrites, Alchemy Master. More important, the alchemy was much more in the open rather than a subtlety for closer readers to become aware of on repeated readings. I think she worked to imitate the better literary alchemists — and to distance herself from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, a deceit that has been remarkably successful especially considering Philosopher’s Stone and The Alchemist sit side by side on many ‘Best Selling Books of All Time’ lists.

Click on ‘Leave a Comment’ up by this post’s headline and let me know what you think!

Speak Your Mind