Rereading Lost Horizon (by James Hilton) for the first time in maybe five years was like reading a completely different book.
Okay. There will be spoilers ahead. For a best-selling book from 1933 that was turned into a famous movie from 1937 that turned Shangri-La into a common noun. So it’s like spoiling the end of the Wizard of Oz. (Pssst… Dorothy gets to go home)
Here’s the elevator pitch: four westerners get flat out kidnapped to the mysterious and mystical lamasery of Shangri-La.
My vague memories were that, by the mystical lamasery’s standards, Shangri-La was pretty mundane. No warrior monks with magical martial arts or wizards. I had completely forgotten that the High Lama claimed to be telepathic (I always forget that!) or that the longevity apparently had a narcotic drug component.
I had also been under the impression that Lost Horizon had been the start of the whole mystical monastery genre when I was younger. Now I know it was a well-used device by 1933. So I am now left wondering if Lost Horizon is a straight take on the mystic monastery and great white savior tropes or a deconstruction of them.
Conway, the protagonist, is the guy who the High Lama chooses to succeed him, even though he’s just got to the place. However, his inner calmness comes from being a shell-shocked survivor of World War I. The book makes is abundantly clear he is very damaged, even though everyone wants him to be their hero.
And, judging by the ending, he doesn’t end up saving anyone. But, to be fair, he never asks to be anyone’s hero.
Shangri-La, on the other hand, is fascinating. The highlights of the place include plumbing from Akron, Ohio, central heating, a European library and a grand piano. The High Lama is actually from Luxembourg. The special treatment that extends lifespans doesn’t work on native Tibetans.
More than that, Shanghai-La doesn’t seem to have any goals relating to enlightenment or philosophy. What little we learn of the place makes it sound like scholarly hedonism, like a group of professors were given lifetime tenure and sabbaticals at the same time. The main goal of Shangri-La is to be a repository of knowledge and art after the rest of the world blows itself up.
Don’t get me wrong. Shangri-La sounds like a lovely place to chill out but it doesn’t seem very deep. Given their mantra of moderation, the characters in the book might agree with me. It’s a tempting but I don’t know if it’s a good idea.
I wonder what Hilton’s goal was with the book. But the layers of ambiguity may be part of the book’s lasting success.