Lost Horizon : Novel Summary
Text: Lost Horizon by James Hilton, Author’s Edition, William Morrow & Company, 1936; 1969.
Summary of Prologue
Tertius Wyland, one of the British Embassy secretaries in a foreign capital, gives two old English school friends dinner at a restaurant, and afterwards they all feel a bit awkward with not much to say. The first-person narrator is a neurologist, and the other man is Rutherford, an author. They watch the big Lufthansa planes arrive at an airport. Things liven up when the pilot of an English plane stops by their table and greets Wyland, who temporarily leaves the table. The pilot’s name is Sanders and mentions to the other two that he was at Baskul. Rutherford is suddenly interested and asks him what happened there. Sanders tells about a plane being stolen during the Baskul revolution in May of 1931. The plane was loaned by a maharajah to evacuate the white Europeans, but a man disguised as the pilot hijacked the plane and took all the occupants to remote mountains. All four passengers and pilot were presumed dead. Rutherford asks if one of the men was named Conway.
Sanders says, yes, and asks if Rutherford knew “Glory” Conway? Rutherford says they were at school together. Sanders praises his heroism at Baskul. Rutherford says it was never in the papers and Sanders looks uncomfortable, because the incident was hushed up. Wyland rejoins the group, and Sanders admits he spilled the story about Conway. Wyland, as an official, scolds Sanders for telling “tales out of school” (p. 6). Rutherford replies that one wants to know the truth of these matters. Rutherford and Wyland discuss Conway, whom they knew at Oxford. Wyland found Conway “rather slack” (p.7), but Rutherford praises him as a “many-sided fellow” (p. 7).
Wyland says Conway returned to Oxford after the War as a don and then went East in 1921. An expert in Oriental languages, he became a consul. The party breaks up, and the narrator, who has to catch a train, goes to Rutherford’s hotel room to wait. Rutherford and the narrator begin speaking of their admiration for Conway and their memories of him: “we were both thinking of some one who had mattered to us” (p. 8). He was tall and very good looking and excelled at everything he did. Rutherford said he was very interested to hear the Baskul story from Sanders, because he had heard it before but didn’t know whether to believe it. It is part of a larger fantastic story about Conway.
Rutherford begins to tell the narrator that story. Conway is not dead after all; he had amnesia. Rutherford traveled with him from Shanghai to Honolulu a few months ago. Rutherford was visiting in China, and on a train, got into a conversation with a Catholic Mother Superior who was going to her convent at Chung-Kiang. She tells him of a strange fever case at their hospital, a European who speaks fluent Chinese and English. Rutherford stops at the hospital and recognizes their patient as Hugh Conway, but Conway has amnesia. Rutherford stays with Conway, talking to him, telling him who he is. Conway likes Rutherford’s company, and Rutherford agrees to accompany him back to England. They decide to keep it quiet to avoid publicity. On the ocean liner, Sieveking, the famous pianist gives a recital of Chopin. Conway finally goes to the piano and begins playing something beautiful but unrecognized by Sieveking. Conway tells him it was an unpublished Chopin study he learned from a pupil of Chopin’s. Sieveking is very excited, but of course the problem was that Chopin died in 1849, so there could be no living pupil of his.
After that recital, Conway got his memory back and spent the next day and night telling Rutherford his story, with Rutherford taking notes. Conway then gave him the slip by escaping when they got to Honolulu. He joined the crew of a banana-boat going to Fiji, a fact that Conway wrote to him in a letter three months later from Bangkok. He paid Rutherford and thanked him for his care. He was going on a long journey to the northwest, he said.
The narrator asks how Conway got to Chung-Kiang in the first place. Rutherford hands him a manuscript of Conway’s story that he pieced together. The narrator reads it on the train and is unable to return it to Rutherford because he is now on his way to Kashmir. The implication is that he is tracking Conway.
Commentary on Prologue
The Prologue and Epilogue provide a frame story, with the supposed manuscript written by Rutherford as the main body of the story that begins in the next chapter, told in the third person. This introduction to what will be a mysterious and fantastic tale lends suspense and sets the reader up to hear something strange. Like the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s poem, Rutherford feels compelled to tell Conway’s story to someone. He rejects the conventional Wyland, the sort of prig that Rutherford can’t stand. He chooses the narrator because he is more sensitive and intelligent.
The introduction of the dull-witted Wyland, the British public servant, prepares us for the character of Mallinson who is the same type. Wyland and Mallinson are unimaginative and cannot understand a brilliant mind like Conway’s. Wyland merely thinks Conway “slack,” a similar comment to Mallinson’s later on. We are not told which European capital airport is the place where the Oxford friends meet, but the arrival of huge Lufthansa airplanes foreshadows the German presence and build-up of power for the next war.
The Prologue gives us the social context of Conway’s story. We learn how his brilliant promise was never realized after the War. He speaks several languages and has had a career in the East. The mystery of his arrival in Chung-Kiang, his amnesia, his knowing an unpublished work by Chopin, and his disappearance, create a desire to read the tale. We are prepared by both the narrator and Rutherford to like Conway. He is generous, brave, unassuming, humble, and learned. He was an Oxford don or tutor who taught Oriental history. His melancholy and prompt escape as soon as he gains his memory prepare us for a romantic tale.