“Lost Horizon” is a 1933 novel by the English writer James Hilton. The book caught the notice of the public the next year after Hilton published another novel called “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”. After this is became a huge success and became the first mass-market paperback book ever published.
The book tells the story of a group of passengers being evacuated during the British Raj in India in 1931. whose plane is hijacked and taken into the Tibetan mountains? They soon discover that a small lamasery called Shangri-la exists within the mountains where a group of people has lived in immortality for the past 300 years.
The book has been called one of the most popular novels of the 20th century and introduced the concept of the fictitious utopian lamasery of Shangri-la to the public. It has since been adapted into a radio serial, a musical and a very successful feature film in 1937 directed by Frank Capra.
The story begins with a prolog where the narrator says that he was invited to dinner with two old school friends named Rutherford and Wyland in Tempelhof, Berlin, Germany at the British embassy. A throwaway remark brings up the story of Hugh Conway, who was a former British consul that disappeared. Later, Rutherford confesses to the narrator that he found Conway in a hospital in China and that the man was suffering from amnesia. Conway slowly remembered what had happened to him and told Rutherford about it before disappearing again.
It is May of 1931 and the situation in Baskul; India has become so bad that the 80 white residents are being evacuated to Peshawar. Planes arrive from the British Air Force for the purpose as well as other miscellaneous aircraft. One such plane is the luxury private jet of the Maharajah of Chandapore. Four passengers board this plane: Robert Brinklow, a Christian missionary, Henry Barnard, an American man, Hugh Conway, a British Consul and Captain Charles Mallinson, Vice-Consul. Conway has been in Baskul for two years and assumes that he will be reassigned somewhere else. Mallinson is a younger man with “public school limitations, Peshawar” but Conway enjoys his company.
Before long, Mallinson begins to suspect that something is wrong with the pilot of the plane. He thinks that they have gone off course and are not headed to Peshawar but Conway tells him to stop worrying and tries to sleep as he is exhausted from the evacuation. However, soon the plane lands for refueling and the passenger’s notice that they are not in the mountains. Tribesmen surround the plane and refuse to let the passengers leave. They then notice that the pilot doesn’t seem to be European. The tribesmen refuel the plane with large cans of gasoline, and they take off again.
Mallinson assumes that they are being kidnapped for ransom.
The pilot dies just as they see men approaching them from outside the plane. The figures carry a hooded chair. When they get to the plane, an elderly Chinese man gets out of the chair and greets the passengers, telling them, in English, that his name is Chang. He tells them that he is from the lamasery of Shangri-la. Chang gives the passengers warm clothes and tells them that he will be their guide to Shangri-la. Mallinson tells Chang that they will not be in the lamasery long and that they will hire porters to guide them back to civilization as soon as they can. Chang responds, “Are you so very certain you are away from it?”
The passengers are given fruit, and Conway notices how clean the air is in the mountains, although the others are having trouble breathing at the altitude. They see avalanches nearby and are forced to stop as the porter’s rope them together for a pass that is only two feet wide and a sheer drop on one side. As they near the valley, the air becomes warmer. Mallinson is suspicious of why these men were waiting for them and why they were brought here, but Conway finds himself enjoying the scenery and the journey. When they arrive at the lamasery, it appears to be a cluster of pavilions attached to the mountainside. The valley below is green and shaded. Chang shows them to their private rooms, and they are attended by servants who bathe and dress them.
That evening, they have dinner with Chang during which the passengers question Chang about why they have been brought there. Chang is very polite even when the questions stray into being rude. Conway is very happy with the lamasery and comfortable around the people. He wonders if there might be some drug in the food that is making everyone sleepy.
Miss Brinklow wishes to know how many people there are in the lamasery and what nationality they are. She is told that there are fifty full lamas and a few others, like Chang himself, who have not been made full members yet. The people come from all sorts of nations, but most of them are from China and Tibet. Miss Brinklow wants to know what the religion is there and tells Chang that she believes “in the true religion.” Chang asks her why one religion has to be “true” and others false. He tells her that mainly, they believe in moderation and avoiding the excess of anything, including virtue.
Mallinson talks more about getting porters and Chang tells him that he is not the right person to ask about that. Mallinson says that he wants to see a map of the area and wants to know how they communicate with the outside world. Mallinson stands but begins to get dizzy, and Conway catches him before he falls. Mallinson is then helped to his room by servants and the others retire to their rooms. Conway stays to talk more with Chang.
Conway tells Chang that they need to get porters to lead them back down the mountain and Chang tells him that it is going to be difficult. Conway knows that their plane was expected and tells Chang this who only says that they are not in any danger.
In the morning, the passengers discuss having to spend the next few months in the lamasery. Conway, for his part, thinks it will be alright as he has been sent to worse places. Barnard is amused by the entire situation and assumes they will be well fed and looked after. Miss Brinklow assumes that she was brought there by God as a calling.
Mallinson is the only one who is still angered at being kidnapped and brought there and does not wish to stay any longer than he has to. The passengers assume that they will be reported missing soon. Chang shows the group around the lamasery and into a large library full of some of the greatest literature in the world in various languages. Mallinson finds maps in the library, but Chang tells him that he will not find Shangri-la on a map. Miss Brinklow wishes to see the lamas at work, but Chang tells her that this is forbidden. He tells her that they spend their days in quiet contemplation and cannot be disturbed. The group has tea in the garden as they listen to Western classical music. Chang tells them that he will not discuss how goods are brought in from the outside and Conway notices that there seems to be a boundary around the things that Chang will not tell them. In the music room, they meet a Chinese girl named Lo-Tsen who plays the harpsichord. Lo-Tsen is waiting to be a lama.
That night, Conway wonders out into the courtyard hear trumpets and gongs in the distance. He overhears a conversation that informs him that the music is for the funeral of the pilot, Talu who “obeyed the high ones of Shangri-la.”
A week later, the passengers have all settled into a routine with Chang as their host. The valley grows a variety of foods, and the natives are very happy and courteous. Conway notes that he mountain hanging over them provides the danger of an avalanche at all times but that the danger only makes the valley more beautiful.
Conway wonders to Chang if they are interested in what is going on in current events and Chang tells him that they will be interested in time. Conway begins slowly collecting information about the lamasery as Chang is willing to talk about it. He finds out that they have no government and no police. The basis of law and order relies on good manners and moderation. The only punishment for crime is exile which is rare.
Conway and Mallinson often go to hear Lo-Tsen play the piano and Conway calls her “little Manchu.” She lets them listen but does not speak to either of them as she does not speak English. Mallison tells Conway that Lo-Tsen is an odd addition to the lamasery because she is a woman and so doll-like. Conway argues with him about this and Mallinson thinks that Conway is cynical about women. Conway has had few romances in his life and considers himself older and more discriminating about women in general.
Later on, Conway wonders why Barnard is so cheerful to be in Shangri-la and Mallinson reveals that he found newspaper clippings about Barnard saying that he was a man named Chalmers Bryant who is wanted for embezzlement.
Soon, Conway is taken to meet the High Lama and the two talk about how Shangri-la was founded. The High Lama tells Conway that in 1719, four Capuchin friars were traveling in the mountains. Three of them died, and one managed to make it the Valley of the Blue Moon. The people that lived there were Buddhists and they nursed him back to health.
In 1803, an Austrian man named Henschell arrived and was converted. This is the man who collected all of the great books and art in the lamasery. He was careful while collecting to keep from letting anyone in the outside world about the lamasery. The only rule of Shangri-la is that anyone can come in, but no one is allowed to leave. The lamasery needed need arrivals and would sometimes guide people in who were traveling in the mountains. Henschell however, died when he was shot by one such newcomer. The High Lama shows Conway a sketch of Henschell, and he realizes that the man looked very young for his age when he died. This leads Conway to the conclusion that the High Lama is, in fact, the original Capuchin monk who founded the lamasery, Father Perrault, who is now over three hundred years old.
Conway asks why the four passengers from his plane were chosen for the lamasery. Perrault says that they are always looking for newcomers but since the Great War and the Russian Revolution, not as many people have been traveling in Tibet. He admits that they have found that the Europeans and Nordic people adapt better in Shangri-la. Talu, the pilot, came up with the idea to steal a plane and had to leave the lamasery to train as a pilot. Father Perrault asks Conway not to inform the others that they are not allowed to leave yet.
Perrault shares his full vision with Conway and the prophecies of advancing dark times that he saw. He feels that the lamasery will not be touched by this darkness because of it’s location and that they can help the world. He intends to collect all of the precious music, books, art, scriptures, etc of the modern world to preserve it.
The next morning, Conway keeps true to his word and does not inform the others of the lamasery’s plans for them. But the others notice a difference in him and make remarks about his laid back attitude. Mallinson, in particular, is irritated to see that Conway doesn’t seem to care what happens to them. Chang tells Conway in private that every newcomer is given a period of five years in which to leave their old life behind, after this the process of delaying age continues. So Conway will reach forty and then look that way for the next half a century. Chang says that he arrived at the age of 22 and is not 97 years old. He tells Conway that if people leave the valley their age catches up with them quickly. They once had a young man leave and come back months later looking very old.
Conway meets some of the other lamas and finds a collection of immortal scholars who studied under Chopin and the Bronte sisters. He learns that Lo-Tsen was an eighteen-year-old Manchu princess who was traveling in the mountains for her wedding and got lost only to end up at the lamasery. The High Lama spends all of his time in meditation and rarely converses. However, another month later they have tea again and talk about Conway’s fellow travelers. They both agree that Barnard and Brinklow will be fine, but that Mallinson will not want to stay.
Over the months, Conway begins to feel himself becoming more and more at peace and falls under the spell of Shangri-la. He realizes that he is in love with Lo-Tsen but that he does not wish to receive anything from her and that he is happy just to be in love with her.
Sometimes he still has to go back to his old life and deal with Mallinson’s impatience and finds this straining. Mallinson also reveals that he feels that he may be in love with Lo-Tsen as well. However, Barnard and Brinklow soon announce that they want to stay in Shangri-la. Barnard has found gold in the valley and wished to mine it, and Brinklow feels that she was sent there by God.
Conway begins visiting the High Lama often. One day he tells Conway that he is going to die soon and only has time for one more thing. He wants to leave the lamasery under Conway’s direction. He has waited for someone like Conway for a long time and felt that he is best for the job. As the conversation ends, Father Perrault closes his eyes and passes away.
Conway is especially agitated by this news. He thinks that Lo-Tsen cannot leave because she will die. He accuses Mallinson of not understanding her and Mallinson says that she is just a kid and that she wants to get away.
Conway sits alone for a while before Mallinson returns, sobbing. He says that he couldn’t get far and that he hates Shangri-la and wants to destroy it. He begs for Conway’s help in leaving. Conway tells him about Lo-Tsen’s real age, and Mallinson tries to make him understand that he accepted the Lama’s story without any facts.
In the epilog, the narrator meets with Rutherford again some time later after hearing the story of what happened to Conway. Rutherford went in search of Conway and then in search of Shangri-la. However, he was not allowed into Tibet. He meets an American man who said that he had seen a Chinese man who spoke English in a hooded chair in Tibet in 1911. The man invited him to a lamasery, but the American decided not to go.
Mallinson never reached China and the doctor at the hospital that Conway was told Rutherford that Conway was brought in by a very old Chinese woman who then died. The narrator and Rutherford agree that the story is “an exercise in the balancing of probabilities” and inconclusive.
Hugh Conway – the protagonist of the story. Conway is a 37 year old, unmarried, former solider who now works for the British government as a consul. Because of his job, Conway was a well-traveled man who spoke many languages and had spent ten years living in China. He was living in Baskul, India when the white people in the city were evacuated, and he ended up on the plane that was brought to Shangri-la.
When the plane he is on is hijacked, Conway’s history of heroics and good deeds leads Mallinson to believe that he will save them from the hijacker. But Conway finds himself strangely detached from the situation.
When he reaches the lamasery, Conway falls in love with it almost immediately. Having seen the horrors of war and been affected by them deeply, Conway finds that he appreciates the simple, easy-going way of life in the lamasery and does not wish to leave. He also appreciates the goal of the lamas, to collect all of the worlds beauty to preserve it in the coming days. Eventually, he is trusted by the High Lama so much that he is granted the leadership of the lamasery after the man dies.
Conway befriends almost everyone in the valley and falls in love with Lo-Tsen. However, he eventually chooses his desire to help his friends escape the mountain over his duty to stay and care for the lamasery as it’s leader. He manages to survive the escape but loses his memory and only tries to get back to Shangri-la when it returns.
Captain Charles Mallinson – the main foil to Conway. Mallinson is Conway’s vice consul and ten years younger than him. At the beginning of the story, he looks up to Conway and believes him to be something of a hero. Mallinson has a young person perspective about most things that Conway normally appreciates. When Mallinson is brought into the lamasery, however, he immediately dislikes it and wishes to leave. He spends all of his time looking for a way back to civilization and does not come around to the charms of the town the same way the others do. Mallinson believes that the lamasery is a prison and an evil place. He wishes to save Conway from it and, after he falls in love with Lo-Tsen, wishes to save her as well.
Mallinson and Lo-Tsen appear to be truly in love, although they do not speak the same language. Mallinson regularly proves himself to be hysterical and cowardly, as during the hijacking and when he is too afraid to leave Shangri-la by himself. He dies in the escape.
Father Perrault – the Capuchin friar who started Shangri-la after getting lost in the mountains with three other friars in 1719. He arrived at the valley nearly dead and was nursed back to health by the people already living there. Eventually, he decided to stay and built a Christian monastery called Shangri-la. He lived for over 300 years and began to practice Buddhism as well as Christianity as he aged.
Shortly after he turned 100, he had a dark vision of a war that would come over the entire world. This made him decide to preserve all of the cultures of the world in the lamasery. He leaves the place to Conway after he dies, assuming that the man will take care of it the same way he did.
James Hilton Biography
James Hilton was born on September 9th, 1900 in Lancashire, England. The son of the headmaster of a school, Hilton began writing while attending Christ’s College in Cambridge. The novel, “Catherine Herself'”(1920) did not see much success.
He was awarded an honors degree in English literature and went on to publish more novels such as “Storm passage” (1922), “Dawn of Reckoning” (1925) and “Meadows of the Moon” (1926) in the next few years. These years were difficult for Hilton, as his writing career was still not taking off. He worked as a journalist for the ‘Manchester Guardian’ and later for the Daily Telegraph during this time.
In 1931, Hilton finally had a hit book on his hands with “And Now Goodbye,” a mystery novel about a train crash where two unaccounted for bodies turn up. After this, Hilton started to see more international fame and his 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon” was soon turned into a feature film. In 1934, he wrote his other well-known novel, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”, a novella about the life of a schoolteacher.
In 1935, at the age of 35, he married Alice Brown only to divorce her two years later. He was married and divorced once more to a woman named Galina Kopernak. Hilton also wrote several screenplays and won an Oscar in 1942 for his work on “Mrs. Miniver” a film based on the novel by Jan Struther. In his life, he wrote 19 novels as well as many plays, short stories, non-fiction novels, and screenplays.
He died at the age of 54 in Long Beach, California from liver cancer.