A mythical country allegedly located in the mountains of Tibet, created by James Hilton in his novel 'Lost Horizon', in which he describes the perpetual youth and vigor of its residents. Some say his novel was based on ancient tales of remote parts of China, Nepal, and Tibet where folklore describes a valley of immortals living in perfect harmony.
Name also given to the "secret base" (later revealed as the aircraft carrier Hornet) from which James H. Doolittle led bombing raid on Tokyo April 1942, and to the Maryland presidential retreat of F.D. Roosevelt. The name is now applied to any imagined earthly 'Paradise' or idyllic utopia.
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.
Hilton employs several traditional methods in his story. The novel opens in a gentleman’s club in Berlin where four Englishmen have met for the evening. Talk turns to a plane hi-jacking which had occured in Baskul, India the previous year. When the men realize they all knew one of the kidnap victims, Hugh Conway, the conversation briefly touches on his probable fate. After the group breaks up, one of their number, the author Rutherford, confides to another that he has seen Conway since the kidnapping and goes on to provide a manuscript accounting for Conway’s experiences.
Conway is among four kidnap victims, the others being Mallinson, his young assistant who is anxious to get back to civilization, Barnard, a brash American, and Miss Brinklow, an evangelist. Conway himself rounds out the group as an established diplomat and stoic. When the plane crashes in the Kuen-Lun Mountains, the quartet is rescued and taken to the hidden lamasery of Shangri-La.
Hilton is stingy in letting out the secret of Shangri-La, which helps build the tension in this novel. Mallinson’s attitude towards Shangri-La makes his actions somewhat targeted, while the rest of the group, while not as flamboyant, also telegraph their eventual course of action.
Lost Horizon is not, of course, an adventure novel. It is more cerebral than that. The monks at Shangri-La believe in a philosophy which is a mix of Christianity as brought to the valley by the eighteenth century French priest Perrault (also the name of the French fabulist who compiled fairy tales such as “Sleeping Beauty") and the Buddhism which existed before Perrault’s arrival. The motto of these monks could best be summed up as “Everything in moderation, even moderation.”
The valley of Shangri-la is a peaceful place, taking from the world around it, but remaining aloof from all the negative actions of that world. Although idyllic, it is not the paradise of the Bible, nor of any Western philosophy, invoking instead much that is Eastern. The dichotomy between the world outside the valley and the society which Hilton envisioned is brought into even starker contrast by today’s knowledge that a war much worse than the one Conway fought in, would engulf many regions of the world less than a decade after Hilton wrote the book. Hilton foresaw another great war and mentions it as a vague prophecy in the book.
Lost Horizon is the type of book written to make the reader think. Even at the very end, when everything seems to be settled, Hilton throws the reader a curve ball, causing them to wonder whether Conway’s memories of Shangri-La are real or merely the result of shock and exposure. And, if they are real, does the secret guarded in Shangri-La really exist or was it merely a fairy tale like those told by a different Perrault?