Friday, March 17, 2006


Lost Horizon, James Hilton, William Morrow & Company, 1933, 241 pp

Here we have a bit of a classic which was also made into a movie starring Ronald Coleman and Jane Wyatt, and was the first book to be later published in paperback. I read it for one of my reading groups. I have read two other books by James Hilton for the 1940s reading, which you will hear about soon. He has a fascination with amnesia, it seems. I thought I had read Lost Horizon many years ago, but if so, I remembered very little. I did see the movie and perhaps that is what I was recalling.

As a story, the most powerful thing is the place: Shangri-La. Conway (a British foreign service officer), his junior officer, an American and a female missionary land in the Tibetan mountains after their plane appears to have been kidnapped. They are met by a Chinese man who leads them to a monastery hidden in a beautiful valley.

Shangri-La is like a New Age wonderland of the 1930s. No particular religion, no doctrine except that of moderation, no enforced discipline except that no one could ever leave without a guide through the mountains. There is a world class library, good food and drink, hotel quality quarters with modern plumbing and a nearby village complete with willing girls for any man's "needs." Because of the altitude or the local herbs or the lack of hurry and pressure, people age very slowly in Shangri-La, so have about 200 years to study anything they fancy, to pursue a hobby or contemplate existence.

All this appeals to Conway, who is basically a functioning shell-shock victim of World War I. It appeals to me as well and would to anyone who has had too much of the world. There is a head lama whose purpose is to preserve civilization through a predicted holocaust and dark ages, so that it is there for mankind in the future. (There is that same idea I found in The Dream of Scipio.)

Alas, Conway's junior officer wants nothing to do with what he sees as a drug-induced fantasy and a prison. He finally convinces Conway to leave with him, after contracting some porters to lead them out. You are left at the end of the book wondering why Conway agreed to leave and whether he ever made it back.

Like any purported paradise, one wonders if any such thing really exists or if it is just a dream some of us had. Personally, I like to create a paradise as a section of my own life, keep it somehow spiffed up and functioning, share it with people who would understand, while getting on with life.


  1. Shangri-La! Shangri-La! A fine film - so underrated in its time and almost as sadly forgotten today. What is so profound about the film - apart from the novel - is that it beckons the weary theater patron to an enveloping paradise only at the periphery of which lingers that grand wonderment and sense of tragic doom that may thrust that whole glorious world into a fragile apocalpyse.

  2. Wow! Well put, Nick. How did you stumble onto my blog?