Lost Horizon

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For other uses, see Lost Horizon (disambiguation).
Lost Horizon
Lost Horizon (James Hilton novel) coverart.jpg
Dust jacket from the first edition
Author James Hilton
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Fantasy, Non-fiction novel, Adventure novel
Publisher Macmillan
Publication date
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
ISBN 978-1840243536 (UK)
ISBN 978-0060594527 (US)

Lost Horizon is a 1933 novel by English writer James Hilton. The book was turned into a movie, also called Lost Horizon, in 1937 by director Frank Capra. It is best remembered as the origin of Shangri-La, a fictional utopian lamasery high in the mountains of Tibet.

Plot summary[edit]


Hugh Conway, in Shangri-La, whose inhabitants enjoy unheard-of longevity. Among the book's themes is an allusion to the possibility of another cataclysmic worlr brewing. It is said to have been inspired at least in part by accounts of travels in Tibetan borderlands, published in National Geographic by the explorer and botanist Joseph Rock. The remote communities he visited, such as Muli, show many similarities to the fictional Shangri-La. One such town, Zhongdian, has now officially renamed itself Shangri La (Chinese: 香格里拉 Xiānggélǐlā) because of its claim to be the inspiration for the novel.

The book explicitly notes that, having made war on the ground, man would now fill the skies with death, and all precious things were in danger of being lost, like the lost histories of Rome ("Lost books of Livy"). It was hoped that, overlooked by the violent, Shangri-la would preserve them and reveal them later to a receptive world exhausted by war. That was the real purpose of the lamasery; study, inner peace, and long life were merely a side benefit to living there.

Conway is a veteran of the trench warfare of WWI, with the emotional state frequently cited after that war—a sense of emotional exhaustion or accelerated emotional aging. This harmonises with the existing residents of the lamasery and he is strongly attracted to life at Shangri-La.

The origin of the eleven numbered chapters of the novel is explained in a prologue and epilogue, whose narrator is a neurologist.

This neurologist and a novelist friend, Rutherford, are given dinner at Tempelhof, Berlin, by their old school-friend Wyland, a secretary at the British embassy. A chance remark by a passing airman brings up the topic of Hugh Conway, a British consul in Afghanistan, who disappeared under odd circumstances. Later in the evening, Rutherford reveals to the narrator that, after the disappearance, he discovered Conway in a French mission hospital in Chung-Kiang (probably Chongqing), China, suffering from amnesia. Conway recovered his memory and told Rutherford his story, then slipped away again.

Rutherford wrote down Conway's story; he gives the manuscript to the neurologist, and that manuscript becomes the heart of the novel.

In May 1931, during the British Raj in India, the 80 white residents of Baskul are being evacuated to Peshawar, owing to a revolution. In the aeroplane of the Maharajah of Chandrapore are Conway, the British consul, aged 37; Mallinson, his young vice-consul; an American, Barnard; and a British missionary, Miss Brinklow. The plane is hijacked and flown instead over the mountains to Tibet. After a crash landing, the pilot dies, but not before telling the four (in Chinese, which only Conway speaks) to seek shelter at the nearby lamasery of Shangri-La. The location is unclear, but Conway believes the plane has "progressed far beyond the western range of the Himalayas towards the less known heights of the Kuen-Lun"

The four are taken there by a party directed by Chang, a postulant at the lamasery who speaks English. The lamasery has modern conveniences, like central heating; bathtubs from Akron, Ohio; a large library; a grand piano; a harpsichord; and food from the fertile valley below. Towering above is Karakal, literally translated as "Blue Moon," a mountain more than 28,000 feet high.

Mallinson is keen to hire porters and leave, but Chang politely puts him off. The others eventually decide they are content to stay; Miss Brinklow, to teach the people a sense of sin; Barnard, because he is really Chalmers Bryant (wanted by the police for stock fraud), and because he is keen to develop the gold-mines in the valley; and Conway, because the contemplative scholarly life suits him.

A seemingly young Manchu woman, Lo-Tsen, is another postulant at the lamasery. She does not speak English, but plays the harpsichord. Mallinson falls in love with her, as does Conway, though more languidly.

Conway is given an audience with the High Lama, an unheard-of honor. He learns that the lamasery was constructed in its present form by a Catholic monk named Perrault from Luxembourg, in the early eighteenth century. The lamasery has since then been joined by others who have found their way into the valley. Once they have done so, their aging slows; if they then leave the valley, they age quickly and die. Conway guesses correctly that the High Lama is Perrault, now 250 years old.

In a later audience, the High Lama reveals that he is finally dying, and that he wants Conway to lead the lamasery. Meanwhile, Mallinson has arranged to leave the valley with porters and Lo-Tsen. They are waiting for him 5 kilometers outside the valley, but he cannot traverse the dangerous route by himself, so he convinces Conway to go along and assist him. This ends Rutherford's manuscript.

The last time Rutherford saw Conway, it appeared he was preparing to make his way back to Shangri-La. Rutherford completes his account by telling the neurologist that he attempted to track Conway and verify some of his claims of Shangri-La. He found the Chung-Kiang doctor who had treated Conway. The doctor said Conway had been brought in by a Chinese woman who was ill and died soon after. She was old, the doctor had told Rutherford, "Most old of anyone I have ever seen", implying that it was Lo-Tsen, aged drastically by her departure from Shangri-La.

Cultural significance[edit]

Promotional postcard for the 1937 film

The book, published in 1933, caught the notice of the public only after Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips was published in 1934.[citation needed] Lost Horizon became a huge popular success and in 1939 was published in paperback form, as Pocket Book#1.[citation needed] Because of its number-one position in what became a very long list of pocket editions, Lost Horizon is often mistakenly called the first American paperback book, when in fact paperbacks had been around since the mid-1800s.[citation needed] What made Pocket Books No. 1 of revolutionary importance was that it had the distinction of being the very first "mass-market" paperback; mass market paperbacks allowed people of modest means not only to own books they otherwise could not afford, but also to slip the paperback into their pocket for casual reading on the go, hence the name "Pocket Book".[citation needed] By the 1960s, Pocket Books alone, over the course of more than 40 printings, had sold several million copies of Lost Horizon, helping to make it one of the best-loved and most enduring novels of the 20th Century.[citation needed][1]

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt named the Presidential hideaway in Maryland after Shangri-La. (It has since been renamed Camp David.[citation needed]) Likewise Roosevelt initially claimed the Doolittle Raid came from Shangri-La; this inspired the name of the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La.

The book has been made into two films:

The book also served as the basis for the unsuccessful 1956 Broadway musical Shangri-La.

Hilton's novel was adapted for BBC Radio 4 in three-hour-long episodes under its Classic Serial banner:[when?][citation needed]

  1. "The Kidnapping"
  2. "Shangri-La"
  3. "The Inheritance"

Broadcast 20 September to 4 October 1981, it was dramatised by Barry Campbell starring Derek Jacobi as Hugh Conway and Alan Wheatley as the High Lama, and re-broadcast 8 to 10 September 2010 on BBC Radio 7, and again in March 2012 and November 2014 on BBC Radio 4 Extra. An earlier recording of the serialised book was transmitted by the BBC Home service in the early 1960s (featuring Gabriel Woolfe playing the part of Conway.)[citation needed]


Lost Horizon is currently available in paperback format and is now published by Summersdale Publishers Ltd [1], ISBN 978-1-84024-353-6 in the UK and by Harper Perennial, ISBN 978-0-06-059452-7 in the United States.


  1. ^ For an example of an early paperback edition, learn more about the Tauchnitz editions.

External links[edit]