In Lost Horizon, James Hilton combines disillusioned pessimism with romantic escapism. It is significant that the novel begins in Berlin, where two terrible specters of the period, the Great Depression and Adolf Hitler, loom in the reader’s mind. Given the apparent collapse of “rational” Western civilization, it is not surprising that a fiction writer should look to the East for an idealized and exotic sanctuary.
It is also important that the hero of this quest, Hugh Conway, although jaded by his experiences, still embodies basic Western virtues—a strong sense of purpose, personal loyalty, a rigid ethic, and efficiency, especially during moments of crisis. Hilton gives readers the best of both worlds. On the intellectual level, he postulates a synthesis of Eastern moderation and Western activism; on the emotional level, he confronts the complexities and tensions of the times with a hopeful vision that shows the best in the Western tradition surviving, even if the worst destroys itself.
Hilton’s small group of involuntary explorers is well chosen, if not deeply characterized. They are all characteristic Western types, and the qualities they represent can, to a considerable extent, account for the state of the modern world. Miss Brinklow symbolizes Western missionary zeal, in a rather benign and comical form. Of the four, she is the most easily recognized stereotype—the righteous, moralistic, spinster lady who, having no personal life of her own, tries to interfere with everyone else’s. Hilton’s treatment of the type, however, is gently ironic rather than sharply satiric; Miss Brinklow is likable, sincere, and feisty rather than priggish and icy. Her plans to convert and animate the Tibetan peasants are taken seriously by no one but herself. The implications of her actions, however, are not so amusing; such missionary fervor in souls less benevolent than Miss Brinklow’s leads to violence and oppression.
Henry Barnard, the American financier, suggests the pragmatic, greedy, opportunistic side of Western culture. Personally, he is a most engaging character—affable, entertaining, adaptable, easygoing, and levelheaded. He is also a wanted criminal. He insists that circumstances and bad luck caught up with him and forced him into defensive monetary manipulations, that he is a fugitive by accident and a victim himself—the classic rationalization of the white-collar criminal.
Miss Brinklow and Barnard, however, are easily distracted in Shangri-La, and their vices are indulged harmlessly. Presumably they will eventually outgrow their particular Western preoccupations and achieve that detached serenity characteristic in the valley. The third member of the party, Captain Mallinson, is another matter. Mallinson is young, passionate, idealistic, and loyal. He is, perhaps, even more admirable as an individual and more dangerous as a character type. A product of an upper-class British gentleman’s education, Mallinson firmly believes in all the ideals of his country and class: honor, common sense, patriotism, and a hard distinction between right and wrong—with rightness residing in the upper-class English view of life. Mallinson had seen Conway acting with heroism in the Baskul evacuation, and so he idealizes Conway. As Conway adjusts to Shangri-La, Mallinson berates him for not living up to that idealization. Mallinson is the one member of the party who is so Westernized that he cannot adapt to Shangri-La even for a short time. To him, life in the lamasery is “unhealthy and unclean . . . hateful . . . filthy.” Mallinson feels that anything he cannot understand or relate to is wrong and deserves destruction. “God,” he tells Conway, “I’d give a good deal to fly over with a load of bombs!” Mallinson’s idealism and passion, coupled with his narrowness of vision, make him the most dangerous of the...
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group. All three characters—Barnard, Miss Brinklow, and Mallinson—are people who are personally likable and admirable but who embody qualities that, if pursued to their logical and probable conclusions, would bring devastation on themselves and on the civilization they so admire and seek to serve.
Conway also represents a characteristic failing in Western society. Although he is not destructive, he contributes nothing toward averting the impending chaos. He clearly embodies the best qualities of the cultivated Westerner. He is intelligent, sensitive, tolerant, sympathetic, courageous when he has to be, and resourceful. To his detriment and the detriment of his culture, however, he is also without any direction or purpose. He is not able to avert the destruction brought on by the zealot, the criminal, or the idealist. For all of his knowledge and talent, he has wandered aimlessly from one minor diplomatic post to another, never much caring where he has been or where he is headed, only hoping for a few incidental pleasures along the way. “Label me ’1914-18,’” he tells the High Lama, “I used up most of my passions and energies during the years I’ve mentioned . . . the chief thing I’ve asked from the world since then is to leave me alone.”
Conway thus represents the potential leader who understands the world and has the capacity at least to attempt to deal with it but whose will has been stultified by the traumas and complexities of the times. The underlying question of the book is whether or not Conway will find the will and purpose that he needs in Shangri-La. The answer to that question, and the center of the novel, lies in the series of interviews between Conway and the High Lama, Father Perrault. In these scenes, the history and nature of Shangri-La are explored, and its mission is presented to Conway. For his part, he must measure his own values, experiences, and apathy against the doctrines presented by the High Lama.
Despite the Tibetan trappings, Shangri-La is a very Western establishment. All the high officials and prime movers have been transplanted Europeans, especially Father Perrault, once a Capuchin friar, and his practical right-hand man, Henschell, an Austrian soldier. The central philosophy is the Aristotelian golden mean, and the underlying assumption is that if human life can be extended long enough, people will outlive the passions and extremes that lead to destruction. The purpose of Shangri-La, therefore, is survival: “We may pray to outlive the doom that gathers around on every side,” Perrault tells Conway. “Then, my son, when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.”
Conway apparently has already achieved a state of passionlessness and possesses the Western capacities of practicality, rationalism, and efficiency. He is the logical choice as Perrault’s successor. The old man tells Conway so and then promptly dies. Almost immediately thereafter, Mallinson proposes an escape back to civilization, and Conway is forced to the climactic decision of the novel.
Despite Mallison’s irritating behavior, Conway likes Mallinson, to some extent identifies with him, and, because of Mallinson’s idealization, feels responsibility toward the younger man. When Conway learns that Lo-Tsen will accompany them and that she and Mallinson are romantically attracted, his feelings and ideas about Shangri-La are shaken. He respects honest, youthful passion and is not too old to feel some of it himself—especially with regard to Lo-Tsen. At the logical level, Mallinson has doubts about the High Lama’s story. He dismisses Conway’s references to the woman’s age as absurd, and Lo-Tsen’s willingness to leave the valley supports the young man’s analysis. In summary, all Conway “felt was that he liked Mallinson and must help him; he was doomed, like millions, to flee wisdom and be a hero.”
Therefore, the rational hero acts, finally, on impulse; the passionless spectator acts out of feeling. Such reversals are not unusual in the best of writing and may be a sign of complexity and stature in a character, or they may represent an easy way to solve a difficult plot dilemma. Whether or not the reader can accept such a facile resolution is a matter of individual taste and judgment. What is most important about Lost Horizon, however, is that in it James Hilton creates a new mythical kingdom, an exotic retreat to serenity and moderation, perfectly suited to the frenzied and bombarded sensibilities of the Westerner.