Lost Horizon : Summary of Chapter 1-3
Summary of Chapter 1
In May the situation in Baskul had become worse and British Air Force planes arrive from Peshawur to evacuate the eighty white residents. They are taken across the mountains in troop-carriers. A few miscellaneous aircraft are also used, such as the luxury cabin plane of the Maharajah of Chandapore, especially designed to fly at high altitudes. Four passengers embark on this plane: Roberta Brinklow, a Christian missionary; Henry Barnard, an American; Hugh Conway, British Consul, and Captain Charles Mallinson, Vice-Consul. These were the names that appeared later in the newspapers.
Conway was thirty-seven and had been at Baskul for two years. After a leave of absence he would be reassigned, perhaps to Tokyo or Manila. He had been in the Consular Service for ten years and is not ambitious. He likes the more picturesque jobs. He is tall and deeply tanned. He has a slight nervous twitch. Mallinson is a younger man in his twenties “with public school limitations” (p. 22), but Conway likes him.
Mallinson notices there is a strange man piloting the plane, but Conway does not care who is the pilot so long as he can sleep. He is exhausted from the ordeal of getting the people out of Baskul. Mallinson keeps saying the man is off his course, and they are not going to Peshawur. As the plane begins to land for refueling they notice they are in the mountains. Armed tribesmen surround the plane, not allowing the passengers to get off. The natives dump huge cans of gasoline into the plane, and the passengers see that the pilot is not European. Conway tries to use his knowledge of languages to speak to the natives, but they do not respond. The landing and takeoff are dangerous and executed skillfully.
Mallinson thinks they are being kidnapped for ransom. Conway composes SOS messages in various languages and drops them from the plane. Mallinson explains to Barnard they are lucky to have Conway with them: “If any one can get us out of the mess, he’ll do it” (p. 29). The plane continues flying east all day, and finally Mallinson breaks down, saying they should do something, prodding Conway. Conway tries to speak to the pilot, but the pilot points a gun through the window. Conway explains there is nothing to do since none of them is armed or can fly a plane. The plane flies into endless mountain ranges, “a fearsome spectacle” (p. 36).
Commentary on Chapter 1
It is not clear where Baskul is. There are towns called Baskul in present-day Iran and in Turkey. From the hints, however, it seems Baskul should have been in Afghanistan, and the flight probably originated from Kabul and was supposed to reach Peshawar in Pakistan. Baskul represents a British colony in its eastern empire that is rebelling. The flight continues east and north beyond Pakistan to come eventually to the desolate and unexplored mountain ranges of Tibet.
The story is told in the third-person but primarily from Conway’s point of view. The most important thing we learn about the characters is their contrasting responses to the emergency. Miss Brinklow is tough, and the American makes ironic jokes. Conway tries to take what action he can, but he decides to rest since he is tired. We are allowed to see what is in his mind. He hears Mallinson bragging about his bravery and ability to get them out of the situation. He himself is not so sure. People mistake his character as being cool under fire, when actually, he feels somewhat detached. He likes quietness more than activity. Mallinson has a tendency to get hysterical, and Conway thinks he has the most to lose, since he has a fiancÈe at home. He recognizes Mallinson’s English “never surrender” attitude. He thinks they should fight, but Conway sees there is no chance of doing anything while they are in the air. His patience is taken by Mallinson as cowardice.
The scene sets the stage for the predictable behavior of all the characters in the adventure to come. Miss Brinklow is a resourceful missionary, used to hardship. Barnard is the cheerful American. Mallinson is the young headstrong Englishman, but he stands out immediately as the problem with his rashness and fear. Conway is the unpredictable mystery man to the rest of them, but the reader is let in on his state of mind on purpose, because he is the only one who can fathom Shangri-la, their destination.
Summary of Chapter 2
Looking out the plane window, Conway tells the others he thinks they are still in India, probably in the valley of the upper Indus. He thinks the mountain ahead might be Nanga Parbat where the climber Mummery lost his life. Someone asks if Conway is a mountaineer, and he says yes; he climbed the Swiss Alps. Mallinson peevishly wants to know not where they are, but where they are going. Conway assumes the mountain range ahead is the Karakorams.
Mallinson thinks they have to drop the kidnapping theory; he believes the pilot is a lunatic. Barnard replies that in any case he is an expert airman, and if these are the highest mountains in the world, it will be a “first-class performance to cross them” (p. 38). Miss Brinklow adds, “And the will of God” (p. 38). Mallinson continues to express his outrage and wants a plan of action. Conway thinks Mallinson might be cantankerous because of the altitude and difficult breathing. For himself, he feels mental clarity. He is happy that there are remote places on earth untouched by humans. Twilight falls, and a full moon rises. They have been flying all day and worry about the fuel. They have come a thousand miles, and Tibet lies beyond the Karakoram range. Conway points out that one of the peaks must be K2, the second highest mountain in the world but the hardest to climb.
Mallinson is offended by Conway’s guided tour, but the American remarks “if I only had a flask of cafÈ cognac, I wouldn’t care if it’s Tibet or Tennessee” (p. 41). They all agree the pilot must be mad. Miss Brinklow announces that the Tibetans believe they are descended from monkeys but not the Darwinian kind. She is from the London Missionary Society.
At night the plane lurches because ice forms on the propellers and wings. There is a great wind buffeting the plane. Finally, it begins to descend for a landing. The landing is rough and a tire explodes. They are lost in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. It seems like there are “mountains on top of mountains” (p. 44). Mallinson goes for the pilot, determined to tackle him, but the pilot is unconscious. They bring him into the plane and spend the night trying to stay warm. The pilot is oriental. Conway guesses they are in the Kuen-Lun mountains in the Tibetan plateau, mostly unexplored and uninhabited.
When the moon comes out, Conway sees the loveliest mountain he has ever seen guarding a valley. Yet he knows they will die soon because they are not clothed for the weather and have no food. In the morning, Conway questions the pilot and finds out they are in Tibet near a lamasery named Shangri-la. They are supposed to go there. The pilot dies. Just then, they see a party of men approaching them.
Commentary on Chapter 2
Nanga Parbat , 26,660 ft (8,126 miles) high, is in the western Himalayas, located in Pakistan. Albert Frederick Mummery (1855–1895), was a British mountaineer, who attempted to climb it in 1895, but Mummery and his party were killed by an avalanche. This allusion serves to give us an idea of the deadly power of these mountains and the fragility of human life there.
Karakorum or Karakoram mountain range lies between the Indus and Yarkant rivers in North Kashmir. It covers disputed territory, held by China on the north, India on the east, and Pakistan on the west. Karakorum’s main range has some of the world’s highest peaks, including K2 (Mt. Godwin-Austen) (28,250 ft/8,611 m), the second-highest peak in the world. Karakorum also has several of the world’s largest glaciers. Its southern slopes are the watershed for tributaries of the Indus River. The mountains are a barrier between India and Central Asia.
Kuen-Lun, or Kwen-Lun, are mountain ranges which run along the northern edge of the great Tibetan plateau. They are considered the backbone of the Himalayas. The people are nomads and depend on trade with the surrounding countries. Despite Mallinson’s criticism, Conway is the natural leader of the group, the only one who knows the territory and languages. During his stay at Shangri-la he feels the official responsibility to represent the others, yet this responsibility to speak for them is directly opposed to his own feelings, causing internal conflict. Though Mallinson wants him to be a hero, Conway does not “care for excessive striving, and he was bored by mere exploits” (p. 40). This is an important point, for later he reflects that if he goes back to England, he will probably be knighted for the affair at Baskul. He is not interested in that honor.
Miss Brinklow’s point that the Tibetans believe they are descended from monkeys is differentiated from Darwin’s theories. She alludes to the myth that the Tibetan people come from the union of the monkey Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa and rock ogress Ma Drag Sinmo. But the monkey is a manifestation of the bodhisattva Avalokite and the ogress is the Buddhist savior-goddess Tara. For her part, Miss Brinklow thinks Darwin’s theories worse than the Tibetans’ ideas. Hilton makes her a comic figure and British stereotype, just as Mallinson is the British bully, and Barnard, the American clown. Yet all of them become more developed at Shangri-la.
Summary of Chapter 3
The figures approach the wrecked plane in the snow, carrying a hooded chair, and when they stop, a robed figure, an elderly Chinese man, gets out and greets Conway. He introduces himself as Chang in English, saying he is from the lamasery of Shangri-la. Conway is amazed to find so civilized a welcome in the wilds of Tibet, but he introduces each of his party to Chang. Chang gives them warm clothes and says he will guide them to the lamasery. Mallinson assures Chang they won’t be there long. They will want to return as soon as they can hire some porters to guide them back to civilization. Chang answers, “are you so very certain you are away from it?” (p.55).
Mallinson is rude in insisting that Chang help them get porters. Chang replies they will be treated honorably but does not promise to help. They are offered fruit and wine and eat it gratefully. Conway wonders where they can get mangoes in the mountains. Chang sees Conway admiring the mountain over the valley and tells him it is called Karakal. Conway begins to relish the clean air “as from another planet” (p. 57). He feels harmonious in body and mind. The others are laboring in the rarefied air and steep climb. They observe avalanches around them and stop as the porters rope the party together for a difficult pass two feet wide with a sheer drop. Mallinson is terrified. As they descend towards the valley it becomes warmer. Conway is cheered by finding some edelweiss, but Mallinson is suspicious. Why were they taken here, and why were these men waiting for them? He apologizes for being “overwrought” (p. 60).
The lamasery is a group of pavilions clinging to the mountainside, and Conway sees that the valley below is green and sheltered. Everything is like a dream. Chang shows them to their rooms, and they are attended by servants who bathe and dress them so they can join Chang for dinner.
Commentary on Chapter 3
Mallinson voices the common sense concern of how they got there and why there were people waiting for them. Conway seems already in another world and quite happy. The two discuss the situation, and Mallinson wants to know how Conway can be so calm when everything seems mad around them. Conway says he can be calm because “This isn’t the only mad part of the world” (p. 61). He reminds him of Baskul and the Great War. Conway is delighted with every detail from the mountain air to the delicate lamasery. He reminds Mallinson that there are times in life when one should “do nothing at all. Things happen to you and you just let them happen” (p. 60). He concludes, “We’re here because we’re here, if you want a reason” (p. 60).
Mallinson’s fear of going over the pass will be a significant point later on in the story. It is a natural barrier, keeping people out of Shangri-la but also keeping the occupants in. Chang gives a hint of something strange when he tells Mallinson “ultimately you will have no regrets” (p. 55).