Lost Horizon :Essay Questions
1. How does Shangri-la suggest the myth of Shambhala?
In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Shambhala is a mythical kingdom hidden in inner Asia, near Tibet. Shambhala is considered a Buddhist Pure Land, a heavenly region to be reached by spiritual practice such as meditation. It is a place of tranquility and happiness. Whether it is seen as a physical or spiritual realm, one can only enter if worthy. The Kalachakra Tantra prophesizes that when the world declines into darkness, Shambhala will defeat this ignorance and bring in a Golden Age. The inhabitants of Shambhala are supposed to have an advanced science of physiology and mind that yields extraordinary powers from spiritual practice. The “Shangri-La” of Lost Horizon was probably inspired by the Shambhala myth as well as the National Geographic articles on Tibet current at that time.
Shambhala came to Western attention through the Theosophists and Madame Blavatsky in the later nineteenth century. She popularized Eastern mystical concepts, including Shambhala, the invisible land hidden in the Gobi Desert, supposed to be the spiritual center of the world. Since then, many writers have taken up this theme including theosophist Alice Bailey and theosophists Nicholas and Helena Roerich, who led a 1924-1928 expedition to Tibet find it. Soviet Yakov Blumkin led two Tibetan expeditions to discover Shambhala, in 1926 and 1928. Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess sent a German expedition to Tibet in 1930, and then again in 1934-35, and in 1938-39.
Many New Age writers, notably James Redfield and Victoria LePage, have written about Shambhala. Even the Nazis took Shambhala seriously and tried to find it to use its force for their own purposes, but according to legend, it is divinely protected. In film it has been alluded to in Kundun, Little Buddha, and Seven Years in Tibet. Shambhala is spoken of by many major religions as a holy land, like Eden.
2. What common features of utopian literature does Hilton use for Lost Horizon?
Hilton does not tell Conway’s story directly. He creates mystery around it, neither asserting nor denying its truth by using a frame story with the fictional author Rutherford retelling what he heard from Conway before he disappeared. The story comes to the first-person narrator as Rutherford’s manuscript. The narrator and Rutherford were both at school with Conway and are therefore immensely interested in the story because they know the man. Rutherford goes so far as to travel to remote places to gather facts, trying to verify what he can.
This technique of enclosing the fantastic in a realistic frame had been used by Sir Thomas More in his Utopia (1516). The word utopia means “nowhere” and is now the name of the fantastic genre that depicts ideal societies. More wanted to critique the politics of his time, but to avoid getting into trouble, he invented a frame story with the author receiving the information about this fabulous island from a traveler, Raphael Hythloday. Utopia presents an ideal society where the citizens are virtuous through reason, not force. There is no private ownership and everyone is taken care of, so there is little or no crime. They eschew war and embrace religious tolerance. In his book, More criticizes the way European nations were ruled with brutality, but to avoid censure, he sets up the book as a debate between the ideal and the real. He does not officially advocate one or the other but presents a rational alternative to violence for the reader to consider.
Many of these same points and techniques are used by Hilton. His Shangri-la is an imagined perfect society to highlight the danger of another world war. In a 1936 interview, he objected “to being classed as an ‘escapist,’” explaining that “the idea for Lost Horizon was germinated out of anxiety over the European situation and a desire to stage a conception of a world as far removed from this sort of thing as possible.”
The skeptical framework enclosing the discussion of an idealist philosophy was also used by Thomas Carlyle in Sartor Resartus (1834). The author makes the reader more likely to swallow the ideal by pretending to doubt it or creating characters who doubt the possibility of such a perfect world. The use of second- and thirdhand accounts also distances the reader and makes the story remote, like legend. We are not required to believe but to take it in. The Razor’s Edge (1944) by Somerset Maugham, tells a story like Hilton’s that recounts a man’s spiritual quest to the East, who had been traumatized by World War I. The tale is told like Conway’s with glimpses of the man through secondhand accounts and conversations.
3. What is the history of Buddhist lamas in Tibet?
Tibet is situated between the two ancient civilizations of China and India, separated from China by the mountain ranges to the east of the Tibetan Plateau and from India by the Himalayas. Tibet is nicknamed “the roof of the world” because of its mountainous altitudes. The traditional Buddhist culture of Tibet was totally dedicated to the spiritual life. “Lama” is a title indicating a level of spiritual attainment and authority to teach. The lamas maintained the religious culture of Tibet, but that tradition was eroded by foreign invasions, and so Father Perrault’s concern to keep the lamasery at Shangri-la hidden from the world has some basis in fact.††
The first Europeans †in Tibet were Portuguese missionaries who arrived in 1624 †and were initially welcomed by the Tibetans. The 18th century brought more Jesuits and Capuchins from Europe (like the fictional Father Perrault).† The Tibetan lamas †finally expelled them and all Westerners from Tibet in 1745, but in 1774 The British East India Company began to investigate trade routes. †The British Empire began pushing from northern India into the Himalayas and Afghanistan, and the Russian Empire expanded south into Central Asia. In 1865 Great Britain began secretly mapping Tibet with spies disguised as pilgrims. Treaties regarding Tibet were concluded between Britain and China in the 1880s and 1890s, but the Tibetan government refused to recognize them and barred the British.
From 1913 to 1949 Tibet enjoyed de facto independence and had limited contacts with the rest of the world. Lhasa, the seat of the Dalai Lama, the head lama or spiritual teacher who is both the religious and political leader of Tibet, was prohibited to foreigners. With the invasion of Tibet by Communist China in 1950, more than 6,000 Buddhist monasteries† were destroyed between 1959 and 1961 and thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns were killed and tortured. The Communists tried to obliterate the Buddhist heritage of Tibet, but the Dalai Lama and his followers were granted sanctuary in India and still maintain an exile government in Dharamshala.
Between the 17th century and 1959, the Dalai Lamas were the directors of the Tibetan Government. The fourteenth Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, has since his exile traveled the world to gain support for his country. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his non-violent protest of the Chinese. Since their diaspora, Tibetan lamas have been carefully preserving their tradition and culture through scholarship and the founding of archives and new monasteries in India. The 1997 film Kundun is based on the writings and life story of the present Dalai Lama. These facts uncannily bear out Father Perrault’s vision.
4. What place does the character of Lo-Tsen serve?
We only see Lo-Tsen through the eyes of others. She is interpreted differently by each man, an important link between Conway and Mallinson, who are both in love with her. The Manchu princess at the lamasery spends her time in the music room playing the harpsichord, giving Conway “a pleasure that was beyond amazement” (Chapter 5, p. 91). The music and her beauty match the delicacy of the vases and the Chinese art: “she was like a lovely cold vase” (Chapter 9, p 158). Conway learns she, like Chang, is awaiting full initiation as a lama. Her beauty and music become for him objects of spiritual contemplation, and he is not sorry “her whole behavior was exquisitely formal” (Chapter 6, p. 102).
Conway accepts her presence as a gift, but Mallinson is outraged that a beautiful girl is locked up with old lamas. He thinks her cold, “a little ivory doll more than a human being” (Chapter 6, p. 102). Conway prefers to see Lo-Tsen from a distance. Mallinson wins the day, however, by getting Lo-Tsen to run away with him. This information makes Conway doubt his own evaluation of the place. He leaves, he says, because Lo-Tsen and Mallinson are the two people he loves most. He observes her apparent attachment to Mallinson: “her eyes were all for the boy” (Chapter 11, p. 199).
We never find out why a woman actually 70 years old, studying to be a lama, suddenly falls in love with a 24-year-old irascible boy like Mallinson. Mallinson does not believe she is really an old woman, but the hint in the epilogue, that Conway was taken to the hospital in Chung-Kiang by an old, old woman seems to confirm Chang’s story that she arrived in Shangri-la in 1884. The only information of her background is from Chang, who was also once in love with her. He explains that Lo-Tsen was interrupted on the way to her marriage and was very unhappy in the first years at Shangri-la. Now, however, according to him, she has adjusted and only has spiritual love affairs with various men without giving herself to them. She apparently does this to console newcomers, to dampen their “hunger” (Chapter 10, p. 172).
Chang, like Conway, interprets Lo-Tsen as above passion. He likens her to “the rainbow reflected in a glass bowl” (Chapter 10, p. 172). Mallinson objects to admiring Lo-Tsen “as if she were an exhibit in a museum” (Chapter 11, p. 187). He admits that he is the one who has broken through her reserve and has discovered her human passion as a woman. This is the moment of Conway’s disillusionment. Lo-Tsen is thus a sort of Eve figure in Shangri-la. With her defection, the whole dream fades.
Hilton leaves the matter unsolved with Chang’s explanation as an alternative cause of her behavior. She could be humoring Mallinson. She is a mystery, like Shangri-la.
5. Does Hilton want us to believe in Shangri-la or question it?
Because Hilton includes contradictory views of Shangri-la within the narrative, some critics have taken the position that Conway was hoodwinked into believing in this paradise because he was, as Mallinson says, “blown up in the War” (Chapter 11, p. 191). Mallinson’s arguments to get Conway to leave the lamasery sound like common sense since they were kidnapped, but Conway tells him, “Mallinson, you have a superb knack of misunderstanding me” (Chapter 11, p. 195). The reader gets Conway’s inner perspective on his spiritual awakening. Yet Conway’s story does leave room for doubt. He returns from Tibet almost dead and with amnesia. He could be thought to be out of his mind. Or, since Rutherford is a novelist, the story could be taken as his romantic construction.
There are clues, however, that Hilton means us to consider Shangri-la in a favorable light. First, there is Hilton’s known personal attraction to the quiet life. Hilton is also known as a sentimental writer, not an ironic writer. Like other utopian writers, he sought an alternative vision of the way things could be. He could see with sympathy the Buddhist contemplative life, as Father Perrault could, something that could balance out the extreme aggressiveness of the Western personality. The book considers the interesting idea of joining the best of the eastern tradition to the best of the Western tradition.
Within the narrative the compelling facts for the favorable view of Shangri-la are first that Conway was willing to risk his life to go back. If he had truly been disillusioned, he would not have done this. Secondly is Rutherford’s comment after he has considered all the facts: “People make mistakes in life through believing too much, but they have a damned dull time if they believe too little” (Epilogue, p. 202). In this regard, Mallinson’s life is pictured as much less noble and full than Conway’s. We are told that Conway is taken to the hospital by a very old woman, which suggests Lo-Tsen lost her youth when she left Shangri-la, thus verifying Chang’s story.
The most disturbing idea for a modern reader is that Conway’s party was kidnapped and brought to Shangri-la. This alone might justify Mallinson’s point of view and shows a weakness in the plot, for Buddhists are non-violent in belief. Frank Capra in his film version of the book seeks to mend the problem to some extent by creating a stronger motivation for the kidnapping. The film script makes Father Perrault purposely seek out Conway as his successor because Conway has written books sympathetic to the ideals of Shangri-la. A critic from the Saturday Review of Literature praised Hilton for giving the public “a glimpse of escape into philosophical reflection” and the idea of “a man who made peace and quiet in his own mind.”