We now meet a fourth important character, the Englishman. The Englishman spent a decade at a university trying to find the one true language of the universe. Before traveling to northern Africa, he studied Esperanto, an international language, then religions of the world, and finally alchemy. To the Englishman’s dismay, however, the alchemists he has met won’t teach him what he wants to know — perhaps, he conjectures, because they don’t know it themselves. Surrounded by thick books, he awaits the departure of a caravan for Egypt. He hopes to travel through the Sahara desert to the Al-Fayoum oasis on the way there, reportedly the home of a two-hundred-year-old alchemist who can turn any metal into gold.
After meeting the Englishman, Santiago removes Urim and Thummim from his pocket and is surprised when the Englishman shouts their names. The Englishman tells Santiago that the stones aren’t valuable, then removes two identical stones from his own pocket. Santiago tells him that the stones came from a king, a fact which the Englishman is not surprised to learn. “It was shepherds who were the first to recognize a king that the rest of the world refused to acknowledge,” he says.
The Englishman tells Santiago that Urim and Thummim were “the only form of divination permitted by God. The priests carried them in a golden breastplate.” He speculates that this may be an omen, telling Santiago that everything in life is an omen. The Englishman also tells Santiago that he is in search of a universal language.
Like Santiago, the Englishman too believes in omens. He is also on a quest, for “the one true language of the universe.” Although the relationships are unclear at this point in the book, this language is synonymous with the “secret of the Master Work,” and includes something called the Philosopher’s Stone, which is related somehow to the Elixir of Life. Perhaps the author’s point is that the Englishman has not reached his goal because he has not focused it sufficiently. He cannot fulfill his Personal Legend because it is too vague and jumbled.
Prior to this episode in the novel, it has been difficult to place The Alchemist in time. Does the story take place fifty years ago, or five hundred? This vagueness with respect to setting is intentional on Coelho’s part, as it lends his book a mythic, timeless tone. When the Englishman mentions having studied Esperanto, however, the reader can deduce that The Alchemist is set sometime during the last century and a half, since Esperanto was introduced by the linguist L. L. Zamenhof in 1887.
When the Englishman speaks of shepherds who recognized a king, he means the “king of kings,” Jesus Christ. According to the New Testament, Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable, where shepherds who had been attracted by a star that shone directly overhead discovered the Son of God.
The Englishman introduces another function of omens in The Alchemist. He tells Santiago (whom he first mistakes for an Arab) that omens are not just for following on the way to achieving one’s Personal Legend. They also can help a person understand the language of the universe. As described by the Englishman, the language of the universe is a kind of lost knowledge — information that everyone in the world used to know, without having to read books. This knowledge has somehow vanished, but the Englishman plans on recovering it with the help of an alchemist.