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Lost Horizon, James Hilton, Pocket, 1970, 231 pp. (originally published 1933)

James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon in 1933, and it was an immediate success, selling millions of copies, influencing President Roosevelt to name what's now Camp David Shangri-La, and Frank Capra, a hot director after an Oscar sweep with It Happened One Night in 1934, made a movie of Lost Horizon in 1937. The book also makes a big impression at first reading, especially for younger readers (which is when I first read it, many years ago now), who are captivated by the atmosphere of mystery and mysticism.

The story of Lost Horizon is simple: a group of travellers are stranded in the Himalayas and they encounter a remote monastery named Shangri-La and the wonderful people who live there. Before that point, Hilton includes a prologue and two lengthy chapters of set-up. The prologue gives the reader a framing story: some British characters are discussing a man named Conway and how he mysteriously disappeared for a few years. Conway was a Renaissance man at Oxford, smart, athletic, and artistic, but for some reason, he accepted a post in India. No one heard from him for a while, and then he turned up as an amnesiac at a hospital somewhere in China. As he gradually recovered his memory, he told his story to a man named Rutherford, and Rutherford passes along this manuscript to his friend with the warning that it will be hard to believe.

Chapter One starts with Conway and three other people fleeing a dangerous area of India. Conway is accompanied by his diplomatic subordinate, a young man named Mallinson, and the two other travellers are Miss Brinklow, a missionary, and an American named Barnard. While in flight, they notice that their pilot is not who they were expecting; later, they notice that the airplane is on a radically different route than it was supposed to take. Queries are answered with the gesture of a revolver, and the group of four is getting anxious. The pilot makes one successful landing in a remote region, and some tribesmen refuel the plane. Chapter Two begins with that night, when the plane suddenly begins to descend. After a landing that wrecks the plane, the four travellers discover that the pilot is unconscious. They are stranded in the middle of an incredibly remote mountain range, without any proper mountaineering equipment, and with no idea why the pilot brought them to this area.

Chapter Three begins the story of Shangri-La. The monastery has sent out a rescue party and the four travellers arrive in safety at Shangri-La and are astonished to find civilized amenities, warmth, and enlightened conversation. The overall feel of the book up to this point, about one-third of the way through the book, has been consistent with the lost-world adventure story, in which a group of travellers arrive at some remote location in the world and discover a lost civilization of some kind. Doyle's The Lost World is one of the most famous examples of this genre, and it has the most apropos name; another good example would be James de Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. What follows in Lost Horizon is less of an adventure story and more of a meditation on pacifism, philosophy, and the best way to live one's life. The four travellers meet the High Lama of Shangri-La and engage in many conversations. The book closes with an epilogue that briefly continues the story of Conway post-Shangri-La.

The philosophy of Shangri-La can be summarized in one word: moderation. As an inhabitant of Shangri-La says: "We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. And I think I can claim that our people are moderately sober, moderately chaste, and moderately honest" (74-5). They also hold that various religions are moderately true, their policies should be moderately dogmatic, and etcetera, ad nauseam. Very little is said about the people in the valley who support the lamasery, and the porters who have carried all this "civilized" paraphernalia, like a grand piano, through the nastiest mountain passes in the world. Nothing is said about being "moderately" luxurious up in the "civilized" strata of this society. Not much is said about the fact that the lamasery only exists because of the presence of a gold mine in the valley. The fantasy elements of the lost-world scenario clash directly with the stated philosophies of the book.

The characters of Lost Horizon are stock issue. Mallinson in particular is irritating, never changing, always whining. Miss Brinklow is the token woman at the beginning, and nothing philosophically intriguing ever comes of the collision of her missionary impulses with the beliefs in Shangri-La; she does remain one of the decent characters in the story. Barnard is the only one with a semi-interesting past and the only character who ever changes, but that change is telegraphed from the moment you know how many police officers are chasing him. The character named Chang is forced to lie to our heroes because of his position in Shangri-La, but even that is somehow rendered boring. The High Lama proves to be the mouthpiece of the ideology of Shangri-La, but every conversation with him is a static set-piece. While he has some good ideas about moderation and civility, there is no dramatic tension in those scenes in that he is talking to Conway who is an easy convert. Meanwhile, the book has underlying and ugly thread of misogyny. Lo-Tsen, the object of the "haunting love story" (as the front cover blurb puts it), has not a single line of speech. She stands around looking lovely, or plays piano, or goes with the men and gives them radiant smiles when they decide to leave.

Conway himself, the good old boy of the British Consulate, falls easily into the new life at Shangri-La. He exhibits a lethal (to the reader's interest, that is) mix of indecision and introspection. I quote at length from the section immediately before he decides to leave:

And he knew, too, that his mind dwelt in a world of its own, Shangri-La in microcosm, and that this world also was in peril. For even as he nerved himself, he saw the corridors of his imagination twist and strain under impact; the pavilions were toppling; all was about to be in ruins. He was only partly unhappy, but he was infinitely and rather sadly perplexed. He did not know whether he had been mad and was now sane, or had been sane for a time and was now mad again. (216-7)

Partly unhappy! I've seldom read about the internal life of a character that was so boring in its complexity. Hamlet may have waffled, but at least Shakespeare set that in the context of the revenge tragedy, an eventful genre. Part of my annoyance with Conway was his presence in an adventure story gone awry; Conway is a symbol of the way the two halves of the book don't support each other. Shangri-La is an interesting place to visit, but not with the expectation of an edge-of-the-seat experience.

Also see the review of the movie based on this book.

First posted: December 5, 1997; Last modified: February 17, 2004

Copyright © 1997-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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