Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564
James Hilton’s short novel is written so carefully that most readers accept the unlikelihood of its setting and story without hesitation. After all, Shangri-La lies high in the Himalayas, one of the coldest and most forbidding regions on Earth, yet the valley’s lower reaches are described as almost tropical. Transportation through the high mountain passes would present almost insurmountable difficulties, yet the lamasery boasts modern plumbing, a substantial library, and even such musical instruments as a piano. Readers’ doubts are allayed in part because Lost Horizon is a story within a story within a story, an adventure related thirdhand, and readers are accustomed to such tales being tall.
Readers also accept the situation because the novel’s four Western characters display a perfectly natural range of reactions to the world of Shangri-La. Roberta Brinklow decides that it is her duty as a Christian missionary to convert the inhabitants of the lamasery and the valley that lies beneath it. Henry Barnard, as Mallinson discovers, is actually Chalmers Bryant, an American financier wanted for fraud. For obvious reasons, Barnard is reluctant to return to the outside world, and he even comes to believe that Shangri-La represents a kind of business opportunity. (In his wisdom, the High Lama suggests that these are shallow interests that Brinklow and Barnard will learn to put aside after a few decades of life in Shangri-La.)
Charles Mallinson himself takes the “official” view—that it is an outrage that he and his compatriots have been kidnapped and that the obvious thing for them to do is to return to “civilization” as soon as possible. He remains oblivious to the life of moderation and contemplation that Shangri-La offers and that most visitors gladly come to accept.
Near the opposite pole is Hugh Conway. Even before he learns the truth about Shangri-La, his interest—if not his passion—is excited. The High Lama at first mistakes Conway’s lack of passion for clarity of mind, but Conway explains that his experiences in World War I have simply exhausted him. It is for this reason that the younger and more impetuous Mallinson is able to overcome Conway’s better judgment. Mallinson is doomed by his lack of wisdom, and readers are meant to understand that he dies in trying to return to the world that he values so uncritically.
Hilton himself narrowly missed serving in World War I, but he knew the physical damage that it had wreaked on Europe and the spiritual toll that it had taken on those who survived it. He also correctly foresaw the destruction that was to come in World War II a few years after the novel was published. In Conway, he created an example of the very best that the Britain of the 1930’s had to offer, and he went on to suggest that the best might not be good enough.
Hilton expresses these concerns in a highly readable novel, but one that makes a forceful moral point. If what the High Lama suggests is true, the world is doomed to destruction and civilization’s survival may rest with Shangri-La. Conway accepts the validity of this vision, but he allows himself to be turned aside from what is clearly his duty. He later attempts to rectify his mistake, and readers are left wondering—along with Rutherford and the “author”—whether he finds his way back there.
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