Places: Lost Horizon

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1933

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Adventure

Time of work: 1931

Places DiscussedShangri-La

Shangri-La. Lost HorizonLamasery in the Karakoram mountains of Tibet, situated on the lower slopes of a peak called Karakal (“Blue Moon”), whose elevation of 28,000 feet makes it nearly the equal of Mount Everest. The lamasery consists of a group of blue-roofed pavilions, delicately poised on the mountainside above a fertile valley. The lamasery is rich in decorative Chinoiserie but it also has an excellent library. Although it is on the site of a much older Buddhist lamasery, its present construction dates from 1734, when Father Perrault–then a Capuchin friar–took up residence prior to developing his own syncretic amalgam of Eastern and Western religious ideas. It is, therefore, a hybrid erection, grafting modern Christian ideals onto a Buddhist base, looking up all the while at an unscalable peak.

Shangri-La reminds Conway, just a little, of Oxford University. Having been deeply disillusioned and spiritually wounded by World War I and its aftermath, Conway naturally looks back to his college days with deep nostalgia. Common parlance calls Oxford a “city of dreaming spires” and a collage of “ivory towers,” and Shangri-La’s architecture and elevation are presented in similar terms. Its loftiness is, however, associated with a particular kind of atmosphere: clean, refined, and exceedingly beneficial to the health. The text carefully points out that “la” is the Tibetan word for a mountain pass, emphasizing that the lamasery is also a metaphorical gateway, offering a passage to a way of being that is far superior to anything available in the modern, civilized world.

The valley below the lamasery is a peaceful utopia whose citizens are happy to submit to the benevolent dictatorship of the lamas. Laws are unnecessary to ensure order because the valley’s inhabitants are so carefully schooled in courtesy that disputes never become violent. All this is part of a legacy, an estate, in both senses of the word, which Perrault now desires to leave to a suitable heir. If Conway were an aristocrat he would probably have an estate awaiting him at home, but he is not, and his sense of duty is oriented toward the grandiose political institutions and ambitions of the British Empire rather than to the stewardship of a tract of land. It is not until he has forsaken his estate that he realizes its true value.


Baskul. Remote outpost of the British Empire on the northwest frontier of the Indian subcontinent, to the northeast of Peshawur (Peshawar). Baskul represents the furthest edge of the decaying empire, beset by rebellious confusion. To its south lies the most troubled region, while the untracked wilderness of the Himalayas lies to the north. It is an obvious backwater, beyond the control or influence of any diplomatic presence.

BibliographyCrawford, John W. “The Utopian Dream: Alive and Well.” Cuyahoga Review, Spring/Summer, 1984, 27-33. Compares Lost Horizon and Aldous Huxley’s 1962 novel Island, citing them as two rare examples of utopias appearing in a century of dystopias.Crawford, John W. “Utopian Eden of Lost Horizon.” Extrapolation 22 (Summer, 1981): 186-190. Places Lost Horizon in the utopian tradition of such writers as John Milton, Samuel Johnson, and H. G. Wells, and likens its appeal to that enjoyed by such popular authors as Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard.Heck, Francis S. “The Domain as a Symbol of a Paradise Lost: Lost Horizon and Brideshead Revisited.” The Nassau Review: The Journal of Nassau Community College Devoted to Arts, Letters, and Sciences 4, no. 3 (1982): 24-29. Discusses significant parallels between Lost Horizon and Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited. Heck and Crawford (above) are notable for comparing Hilton to other, more critically accepted writers.“Utopia in Tibet.” Review of Lost Horizon, by James Hilton. The New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1933, 8-9. One of the first U.S. reviews of Lost Horizon. The anonymous writer finds the characters and their problems too unrealized to make an impression, but calls the picture of the lamasery in Shangri-La memorable.Whissen, Thomas R. Classic Cult Fiction: A Companion to Popular Cult Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. The chapter on Lost Horizon points out that Shangri-La has become part of our vocabulary and treats its popularity in terms of the myths it utilizes. The best single investigation of the book’s perennial appeal.
Categories: Places