Header overlay

In Search of Shangri-La

Share this

I first discovered James Hilton’s Lost Horizon as an adolescent, when I came across a hardback copy in a secondhand bookshop marked at one shilling and ninepence (8p in today’s money). It was published in Macmillan’s Cottage Library and I can still remember its nice clear typeface, the feel of its rounded corners, and the slight browning of the pages which added a nostalgic charm. As soon as I read the opening sentence I was hooked:

Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who meet again as men and find themselves with less in common than they used to think . . .

At the time I enjoyed it simply as an adventure story, but each subsequent reading has revealed new layers of meaning. Over the years I have come back to this beguiling novel many times, and however often I do so, I never tire of it. It has become part of my inner world.

Lost Horizon, which was first published in 1933, tells the story of a group of four people – a diplomat, his assistant, a missionary and an American financier – who find themselves in the Afghan city of Kabul (disguised by Hilton as Baskul) when civil war breaks out. They attempt to escape by plane to India but the plane is hijacked and they are taken instead to a mysterious lamasery – the Shangri-La of the title – in a remote area of Tibet.

This is their magical first glimpse of it:

A group of coloured pavilions clung to the mountainside with none of the grim deliberation of a Rhineland castle, but rather with the chance delicacy of flower-petals impaled upon a crag. It was superb and exquisite . . . the feeling was only momentary, and soon merged in the deeper sensation, half mystical, half visual, of having reached at last some place that was an end, a finality.

Inside the lamasery they find a gentle, cultured community, isolated from Western civilization and deter

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

I first discovered James Hilton’s Lost Horizon as an adolescent, when I came across a hardback copy in a secondhand bookshop marked at one shilling and ninepence (8p in today’s money). It was published in Macmillan’s Cottage Library and I can still remember its nice clear typeface, the feel of its rounded corners, and the slight browning of the pages which added a nostalgic charm. As soon as I read the opening sentence I was hooked:

Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who meet again as men and find themselves with less in common than they used to think . . .
At the time I enjoyed it simply as an adventure story, but each subsequent reading has revealed new layers of meaning. Over the years I have come back to this beguiling novel many times, and however often I do so, I never tire of it. It has become part of my inner world. Lost Horizon, which was first published in 1933, tells the story of a group of four people – a diplomat, his assistant, a missionary and an American financier – who find themselves in the Afghan city of Kabul (disguised by Hilton as Baskul) when civil war breaks out. They attempt to escape by plane to India but the plane is hijacked and they are taken instead to a mysterious lamasery – the Shangri-La of the title – in a remote area of Tibet. This is their magical first glimpse of it:
A group of coloured pavilions clung to the mountainside with none of the grim deliberation of a Rhineland castle, but rather with the chance delicacy of flower-petals impaled upon a crag. It was superb and exquisite . . . the feeling was only momentary, and soon merged in the deeper sensation, half mystical, half visual, of having reached at last some place that was an end, a finality.
Inside the lamasery they find a gentle, cultured community, isolated from Western civilization and determined to maintain its library and art treasures despite the gathering clouds of war. Hugh Conway, the British diplomat whose narrative forms the basis of the novel, is increasingly attracted to the calm and gentle atmosphere of Shangri-La and has many conversations with the ruler of the community, the High Lama. Since Conway is disillusioned with his job and secretly yearns for a life of study and contemplation (he had at one time been an Oxford don) he finds the lamasery and its unhurried philosophy more and more appealing. He learns that the lamasery intends to keep him and his colleagues permanently but he dare not break this news to them at first, though he realizes they will have to know eventually. He also learns that the unique atmosphere at Shangri-La delays the ageing process and that it is not uncommon for residents to live for a century or more. With great reluctance he ultimately decides to leave since his impetuous young colleague, Mallinson, is determined to do so and cannot attempt the difficult journey without his help. Mallinson has fallen in love with a Chinese girl, Lo-Tsen, and wishes to escape with her. (Lo-Tsen has lived at the lamasery since 1884, having lost her way in the mountains while travelling to join her betrothed: she has not aged in the interim.) The missionary and the financier are content to remain at Shangri-La, but Mallinson and Conway leave together. They are determined to reach India and ultimately England, but their attempt has tragic consequences. The story ends with Conway making desperate efforts to find his way back to Shangri-La, leaving the question ringing in the reader’s ears: ‘Do you think he will ever find it?’ Such a bald summary cannot do justice to the haunting atmosphere of Lost Horizon. I know of no other novel that leaves the reader with such a powerful sense of loss. Some of its images remain in the mind long after one has finished reading – the journey by plane across the snow-covered mountains, the approach to Shangri-La, the meeting with the High Lama, the departure from the lamasery, the sudden ageing of Lo-Tsen. These scenes were brilliantly captured in Frank Capra’s 1937 film version, starring Ronald Colman. Capra went to great lengths to ensure that the film was as technically accurate as possible and spent much time on research into Tibetan fashions, buildings and customs. In the 1930s Tibet was virtually unknown to readers in the Western world, and Hilton’s vision of this remote and idyllic civilization was fresh and exciting. Younghusband had succeeded in reaching Lhasa in 1904, but after his brief exploration Tibet was once again shrouded in mystery. A medieval theocracy surrounded by impenetrable mountain ranges, it was regarded as a lost world. Long after the publication of Lost Horizon Tibet continued to be largely unknown. Heinrich Harrer’s classic Seven Years in Tibet, which includes fascinating descriptions of the country and its people in the 1940s, was not published until 1953. Tibet has, of course, been under Chinese occupation since 1950, but despite this vast tracts of the country are still inaccessible and only nominally under Chinese rule. The Kun Lun mountains, where Hilton located Shangri-La, remain to this day largely unexplored, though this vast mountain range contains peaks almost as high as Everest. When Hilton was asked why he chose to write about such a remote civilization he replied: ‘Obscure places and people have a great attraction for me and Tibet is one of the few places on earth that is still comparatively inaccessible.’ Yet, ironically, Hilton himself had never visited Tibet. Instead he had immersed himself in books about the country, in particular the writings of the American explorer Joseph Rock who had travelled widely in Tibet in the 1920s and 1930s. It was Rock’s vivid accounts in the National Geographic Magazine of lofty mountain ranges, windswept plateaux and hidden valleys that inspired Hilton to set his novel in this inhospitable terrain. Lost Horizon was first published at a time of mounting unemployment and depression, when the Nazi regime was just beginning its programme of persecution. With its powerful anti-war message and emphasis on gentleness and compassion, the novel struck a deep chord. It won the Hawthornden prize in 1934 (the equivalent of today’s Booker) and has been continuously in print on both sides of the Atlantic ever since. Hilton went on to write other best-selling novels including Goodbye Mr Chips and Random Harvest, but perhaps Lost Horizon made the most lasting mark. Few novels can claim to have added a new word to the English language: ‘Shangri-La’ has come to mean any ideal retreat from the world, and it must now be one of the most popular house names in England. Several writers have tried their hand at writing a sequel – the film buff Leslie Halliwell with Return to Shangri-La in 1987, and two American writers, Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altiery, with Shangri-La: The Return to the World of Lost Horizon in 1996 – but neither captures the haunting flavour of the original. The utter inaccessibility that Hilton managed to convey, the sense of something remote and beyond our reach, must surely explain the novel’s lasting appeal. For most of us love a mystery.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 9 © John Hammond 2006


About the contributor

John Hammond has written books on Wells, Poe, Orwell, Stevenson and Defoe. He is keenly interested in the author of Lost Horizon, and in 2000 founded a society to promote interest in James Hilton’s life and work.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.