OverviewHugh Conway, a veteran member of the British diplomatic service, finds inner peace, love, and a sense of purpose in Shangri-La, whose inhabitants enjoy unheard-of longevity. Among the book's themes is an allusion to the possibility of another cataclysmic world war brewing, as indeed it was at the time. It is said to have been inspired at least in part by accounts of travels in Tibetan borderlands, published in the National Geographic by the explorer and botanist Joseph Rock. The remote communities he visited, such as Muli, show many similarities to the fictional Shangri-La. One such town, Zhongdian, has now officially renamed itself as Shangri La (Chinese: Xianggelila) because of its claim to be the inspiration for the novel.
The book explicitly notes that having made war on the ground man would now fill the skies with death, and that all precious things were in danger of being lost, like the lost histories of Rome ("Lost books of Livy"). It was hoped that overlooked by the violent, Shangri-la would preserve them and reveal them later to a receptive world exhausted by war. That was the real purpose of the lamasery; study, inner peace and long life were a side benefit to living there.
Conway is a veteran of the trench warfare of WWI, with the emotional state frequently cited after that war--a sense of emotional exhaustion or accelerated emotional aging. This harmonizes with the existing residents of the lamasery and he is strongly attracted to life at Shangri-La.
StoryThe origin of the eleven numbered chapters of the novel is explained in a prologue and epilogue, whose narrator is a neurologist.
This neurologist and a novelist friend, Rutherford, are given dinner at Tempelhof, Berlin, by their old school-friend Wyland, a secretary at the British embassy. A chance remark by a passing airman brings up the topic of Hugh Conway, a British consul in Afghanistan, who disappeared under odd circumstances. Later in the evening, Rutherford reveals to the narrator that, after the disappearance, he discovered Conway in a French mission hospital in Chung-Kiang (probably Chongqing), China, suffering from amnesia. Conway recovered his memory and told Rutherford his story, then slipped away again.
Rutherford wrote down Conway's story; he gives the manuscript to the neurologist, and that manuscript becomes the heart of the novel.
In May, 1931, during the British Raj in India, the 80 white residents of Baskul are being evacuated to Peshawar, owing to a revolution. In the airplane of the Maharajah of Chandrapore are Conway, the British consul, age 37; Mallinson, his young vice-consul; an American, Barnard; and a British missionary, Miss Brinklow. The plane is hijacked and flown instead over the mountains to Tibet. After a crash landing, the pilot dies, but not before telling the four (in Chinese, which Conway knows) to seek shelter at the nearby lamasery of Shangri-La. The location is unclear, but Conway believes the plane has "progressed far beyond the western range of the Himalayas towards the less known heights of the Kuen-Lun" (i.e. Kunlun).
The four are taken there by a party directed by Chang, a postulant at the lamasery who speaks English. The lamasery has modern conveniences, like central heating; bathtubs from Akron, Ohio; a large library; a grand piano; a harpsichord; and food from the fertile valley below. Towering above is Karakal, literally translated "Blue Moon," a mountain more than 28,000 feet (8,500 m) high.
Mallinson is keen to hire porters and leave, but Chang politely puts him off. The others eventually decide they are content to stay: Miss Brinklow, to teach the people a sense of sin; Barnard, because he is really Chalmers Bryant (wanted by the police for stock fraud) and because he is keen to develop the gold-mines in the valley; Conway, because the contemplative scholarly life suits him.
A seemingly young Manchu woman, Lo-Tsen, is another postulant at the lamasery; she does not speak English but plays the harpsichord. Mallinson falls in love with her, as does Conway, though more languidly.
Conway is given an audience with the High Lama, an unheard-of honor. He learns that the lamasery was constructed in its present form by a Catholic monk named Perrault from Luxembourg, in the early eighteenth century. The lamasery has since then been joined by others who have found their way into the valley. Once they have done so, their aging slows; if they then leave the valley, they age quickly and die. Conway guesses correctly that the High Lama is Perrault, now 300 years old.
In a later audience, the High Lama reveals that he is finally dying, and that he wants Conway to lead the lamasery. Meanwhile, Mallinson has arranged to leave the valley with porters and Lo-Tsen. They are waiting for him 5 miles (8.0 km) outside the valley, and he cannot traverse the dangerous route by himself, so he convinces Conway to go along. This ends Rutherford's manuscript.
The last time Rutherford saw Conway, it appeared he was preparing to make his way back to Shangri-La. Rutherford completes his account by telling the neurologist that he attempted to track Conway and verify some of his claims of Shangri-La. He found the Chung-Kiang doctor who had treated Conway. The doctor said Conway had been brought in by a Chinese woman who was ill and died soon after. She was old, the doctor had told Rutherford, "Most old of anyone I have ever seen", implying that it was Lo-Tsen, aged drastically by her departure from Shangri-La.
Cultural significanceThe book, published in 1933, caught the notice of the public only after Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips was published in 1934. Lost Horizon subsequently became a huge success and in 1939 was published in paperback form, as Pocket Book #1. Because of its number-one position in what became a very long list of pocket editions, Lost Horizon is often cited as the first American paperback book, which is not correct. The first mass-market, pocket-sized, paperback book printed in America was an edition of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth, produced by Pocket Books as a proof-of-concept in late 1938. Also, inexpensive books bound in paper have existed since as early as the 19th century.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt named the Presidential hideaway in Maryland after Shangri-La. (It has since been renamed Camp David.) Likewise Roosevelt initially claimed the Doolittle Raid came from Shangri-La; this later inspired the name of the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La.
The book has been made into two films:
- Lost Horizon (1937), directed by Frank Capra
- Lost Horizon (1973), directed by Charles Jarrott (musical version)
Hilton's novel was adapted for BBC Radio 4 in three hour-long episodes under its Classic Serial banner. Broadcast 20 September to 4 October 1981, it was dramatised by Barry Campbell starring Derek Jacobi as Hugh Conway, and re-broadcast 8 September to 10 September 2010 on BBC Radio 7.
The novel is highly referenced in the book Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
The novel is said to be a loose basis for the film Star Trek: Insurrection.
Lost Horizon is currently available in paperback format and is now published by Summersdale Publishers Ltd , ISBN 978 1 84024 353 6 in the UK and by Harper Perennial, ISBN 978 0 06059 452 7 in the United States.
The Shangri-La Hotels, based in Singapore but extending to Australia, Malaysia and other Asian countries, are also named and to some extent themed after the lamasery of the book. Some of the hotels provide guests with a complimentary copy of the book, a practice stretching back to the chain's first hotel in Singapore in the 1970s.
Notes and references
- Lost Horizon at Project Gutenburg Australia
- Lost Horizon in book format is available from Summersdale Publishers
- Review by Steven Silver
- Clues to real Shangri-La point to China
James HILTON (1900-1954)
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