A Refuge From The Harsh World

| Updated: December 17, 2021 3:46 pm

A novel that I remember that I have liked ever since I have read is Lost Horizon by the English novelist, James Hilton. The novel was published in 1933. I read it many years ago, the first time over two decades ago and, ever since, I have returned to this novel quite a few times in my life. I have certainly read Lost Horizon three times in whole and read it partially many times over. The novel, seemingly, is about a fictional Buddhist monastery, high up in the mountains of Tibet. The novel was also turned into a film of the same name by Frank Capra in 1937. For the uninitiated, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon is famous for the creation of a new word and a concept in language: Shangri-La.

The plot is unique in a way. The story is appended by a prologue and an epilogue, which are narrated by a neurologist. A chance remark brings up the topic of Hugh Conway, who was the British Consul in Afghanistan and who disappeared under strange circumstances. In the prologue, Rutherford, a novelist, narrates to the neurologist that he had found Conway, after his disappearance, much later in a French Mission Hospital in Chung-Kiang, China, where he was suffering from amnesia. Conway had then recovered his memory, narrated his story to Rutherford, who had written it in a manuscript, and he had slipped again. Rutherford, thus, gives the manuscript to the neurologist, which forms the text of the novel.

The novel is most interesting and describes life in a fictional lamasery called Shangri-La, where ageing slows down. Conway and his fellow passengers were flying in a plane, which has been hijacked and flown over the mountains to Tibet, instead of Peshawar, where they were to be evacuated. The hijacking is dramatic, to say the least. The plane crash lands, and the pilot dies but he tells the four passengers to seek refuge in the monastery at Shangri-La. The pilot speaks Chinese, which is spoken only by Conway. The precise geographical location of the place is unclear but they have progressed “far beyond the Western range of the Himalayas”, somewhere in the mountain range of the Kunlun Mountains, which is one of the longest mountain chains in Asia.

You could read more about the Kunlun mountain range here at the Encyclopedia Brittanica page: https://www.britannica.com/place/Kunlun-Mountains

Lost Horizon, essentially, conveys the idea of a refuge in this world, away from the harshness of life. Conway and his friends are welcomed by Chang. Mallinson, the young American, wants to get back to ‘the world’ as soon as possible. He is impatient and asks about the return journey back. Chang parries the question and says that arrangements are being made. It dawns on Conway after a while that the hijacking of the plane was part of a plan to bring them to Shangri-La. Conway is also granted a rare visit to the High Lama. This is unheard of for a new visitor, as Chang informs him and as Chang adds, the High Lama does not necessarily meet visitors. It is thus a privilege and an honour bestowed upon Conway. The High Lama tells Chang about a Catholic monk named Perrault, who was the first person to come to Shangri-La. Perrault was from Luxembourg in the early eighteenth century. Hugh Conway realizes that the High Lama is none other than Father Perrault and that he is two hundred and fifty years old. Conway is quite mesmerized by the turn of events, and it seemed to him as if the meeting had happened in a dream.

Conway confides to Mallinson about his meeting and the young man completely disbelieves the story that Conway tells him, including Perrault’s claim that they have managed to slow down ageing. Conway lets Mallinson be. Mallinson finds a young Chinese girl, Lo-Tsen, attractive. Later, he tells Conway to help in arranging for the porters and that Lo-Tsen would like to leave with him. By now, Conway has also learned that the environment at Shangri-La leads to slow ageing but if anyone were to leave that place, they would age suddenly in the world outside and die. Mallinson doesn’t believe anything that Conway tells him and is quite impatient. Meanwhile, Conway has been granted a second meeting with the High Lama. Chang tells him that it was absolutely rare for such an occurrence. Talking to the High Lama, Conway learns that Perrault is sick and close to death. Perrault also tells Conway that he would like him to head the lamasery. Soon afterward, Perrault dies.

The plot is quite interesting. The prologue speaks about Conway who had lost his memory as he had left Shangri-La but when he listens to Sieveking play the works of Frederic Chopin, Conway plays a couple of pieces himself. Sieveking, who knows everything published by Chopin, asks Conway, whose work he played. To which, Conway replies that it was Chopin. Sieveking disputes it furiously but says that if ever Chopin had published the works Conway played, they were surely his style. Conway, then, says that he learned about those works of Chopin from one of his students. Sieveking doesn’t realize the chronology and is engrossed in the musical works. Rutherford understands that Chopin had died in 1849 and so the chronology doesn’t “add up”.

James Hilton leaves us with the mystery of Shangri-La but he does leave sufficient hints in the novel about the reality of the place. Frank Capra made a memorable movie on the book. There is also a 1973 musical movie version of the novel too. The book was so popular that it heralded the rise of the mass market paperbacks in the world. The Us President, Franklin D. Roosevelt had named the Presidential hideaway in Maryland as Shangri-La. It was named renamed as Camp David. It was James Hilton, who coined the word and the  concept, ‘Shangri-La’ for the first time in Lost Horizon. I look at the novel, the mythical place, Shangri-La, as a refuge from the harshness of the world, much like Father Perrault, who tells Conway that they must preserve what is beautiful in the world. 

I will take your leave with some haunting passages from the novel.


A world of incomparable refinements still lingered tremulously in porcelain and varnish, yielding an instant of emotion before its dissolution into purest thought. There was no boastfulness, no striving after effect, no concentrated attack upon the feelings of the beholder. These delicate perfections had an air of having fluttered into existence like petals from a flower. They would have maddened a collector, but Conway did not collect; he lacked both money and the acquisitive instinct. His liking for Chinese art was an affair of the mind; in a world of increasing noise and hugeness, he turned in private to gentle, precise, and miniature things. And as he passed through room after room, a certain pathos touched him remotely at the thought of Karakal’s piled immensity over against such fragile charms.

Project Gutenberg Australia edition of Lost Horizon https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks05/0500141h.html#chap5

That flight from Baskul had not been the meaningless exploit of a madman. It had been something planned, prepared, and carried out at the instigation of Shangri-La. The dead pilot was known by name to those who lived there; he had been one of them, in some sense; his death was mourned. Everything pointed to a high directing intelligence bent upon its own purposes; there had been, as it were, a single arch of intentions spanning the inexplicable hours and miles.

Project Gutenberg Australia edition of Lost Horizon https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks05/0500141h.html#chap5

But here, at Shangri-La, all was in deep calm. In a moonless sky the stars were lit to the full, and a pale blue sheen lay upon the dome of Karakal. Conway realized then that if by some change of plan the porters from the outside world were to arrive immediately, he would not be completely overjoyed at being spared the interval of waiting.

Project Gutenberg Australia edition of Lost Horizon https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks05/0500141h.html#chap5

With the greatest of pleasure. It was, you may think, a singularly unpractical accomplishment, but recollect that Perrault had reached a singularly unpractical age. He would have been lonely without some such occupation—at any rate until the fourth year of the nineteenth century, which marks an important event in the history of our foundation. For it was then that a second stranger from Europe arrived in the valley of Blue Moon. He was a young Austrian named Henschell who had soldiered against Napoleon in Italy—a youth of noble birth, high culture, and much charm of manner. The wars had ruined his fortunes, and he had wandered across Russia into Asia with some vague intention of retrieving them.

— Project Gutenberg Australia edition of Lost Horizon https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks05/0500141h.html#chap5

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