An alchemist reads a short story in a book while traveling with a caravan. The story begins with the familiar legend of Narcissus, in which a young man is so in love with his own beauty that he stares at his reflection in a lake until he falls into the water and drowns. In this version of the story, however, the narrative continues. The lake is weeping after Narcissus’s death, and the goddess of the forest appears to ask the lake why she weeps.
The prologue provides a complimentary anecdote to the story that reveals more about Paulo Coelho’s priorities in writing this novel than it does about the plot of the main narrative. The Greek myth of Narcissus is a familiar tale about the destructiveness of vanity and self-love, and here it introduces the idea of the novel itself as a modern kind of “parable”—a simple, relatable story used to develop a moral lesson. The alchemist appears as a character here, but he won’t be back until much later in the book.
The goddess of the forest assumes that the lake weeps for Narcissus’s death because the lake could best contemplate his beauty, as he knelt by the water’s edge. The lake says that it did not know Narcissus was beautiful. The lake weeps for the loss of Narcissus because the lake could see its own beauty reflected in Narcissus's eyes. “What a lovely story,” says the alchemist.
This fresh ending to an ancient tale provides the reader with the sense of Coelho’s book as updating old themes for a new generation. It also shows the reader that is easy to look for one’s own “reflection” in anything, indicating that this novel might be a kind of parable, but it should not be read strictly as a “self help” book.