Lost Horizon: Metaphor Analysis
The Mountain of Karakal
Karakal, the Tibetan mountain overlooking the valley of Shangri-la, is, for the hero, Hugh Conway, “the loveliest mountain on earth” (Chapter 2, p. 47). It is “radiant,” “serenely poised” with a perfect cone—not romantic, but with an intellectual quality like “a Euclidean theorem” (Chapter 2, p. 49). This mountain comes to symbolize for him the contemplative peace and joy of Shangri-la. Even though Karakal towers over the valley in “the most terrifying mountainscape in the world” with the “immense stress of snow and glacier against which the rock functioned as a gigantic retaining wall” (Chapter 3, p. 62) threatening someday to come down in avalanches and make the valley into a glacial lake, there is an “anesthetizing tranquility” (Chapter 3, p. 63) in the lamasery built into its side. When he views the mountain by moonlight, he feels a “deeper repose overspread him, as if the spectacle were as much for the mind as for the eye” (Chapter 4, p. 74). With the moonlight shining on the snow, Conway perceives Karakal as a “lighthouse” (Chapter 4, p. 74), which foreshadows the High Lama’s description of Shangri-la’s mission to preserve the culture of the world in the coming time of darkness when destruction will reign in the world. Karakal means Blue Moon, and Conway thinks the civilization it shelters is as rare as a blue moon. He thinks of the delicacy of the Chinese art collection in the lamasery, the porcelain and lacquers, as full of pathos with “Karakal’s piled immensity over against such fragile charms” (Chapter 5, p. 86). In the end, it is not the threat of avalanches on the mountain that can destroy Shangri-la, but human ignorance. When Mallinson persuades Conway to leave with him because he believes the place to be evil, Conway looks back wistfully at the moon on Karakal, knowing that “a dream had dissolved” with “the first touch of reality” (Chapter 11, p. 196). All of Mallinson’s common sense arguments and emotional appeal to his friend are enough to break the delicate balance created by the moon, mountain, the lamasery and its ideal of wisdom and contemplation. Mallinson tries to convince Conway that he has lost his mind, and indeed, this happens, but only when he leaves Karakal and Shangri-la. When he returns to the outside, he cannot remember who he is. He has left his identity with the mountain.
Shangri-la’s valley is a Garden of Eden, “a delightfully favored place,” (Chapter 3, p. 63). Conway feels he has reached “some place that was an end, a finality” (Chapter 3, p. 63). “ A separate culture might flourish here without contamination from the outside world” (Chapter 3, p. 67). The unexpected green valley of mild climate protected by the fierce mountains, produces mangoes and all manner of delicate food and fruit for the people and the lamas: It was “an enclosed paradise of amazing fertility” with “Crops of unusual diversity” (Chapter 6, p. 97). The wild mountains contrast with “tiny lawns and weedless gardens” (Chapter 6, p. 98).
The valley is seen as a miracle by Conway, the ultimate good fortune. Mallinson, however, views everything “through the bars of an imaginary cage” (Chapter 5, p. 85). Tea at the lamasery is in “a garden, in which a lotus pool lay entrapped” (Chapter 5, p. 89), ringed with fierce-looking bronze dragons that nevertheless emphasize the peace there. The garden imagery is thus contradictory. The bronze dragons recall the snake, the sleeping evil that can destroy the garden, but in this garden, the dragon is a piece of harmless art. Like Eden, Shangri-la is a land of abundance and all desires are fulfilled. Even Barnard and Miss Brinklow want to stay and do the work that suits them.
Yet the idea that the garden is a trap is not wholly illusory, for the High Lama confirms that no one is allowed to leave this Eden for fear of word reaching the outside of its existence. Father Perrault’s fear seems justified in that Mallinson repeatedly threatens to expose Shangri-la when he gets back to “civilization.” He wants to see it bombed out of existence. He is the snake that destroys the delicate balance of the garden. Conway, on the other hand, sees the fragile beauty of the garden as something to protect and cherish. He is named as the High Lama’s successor.
The garden of Shangri-la is a joint creation of nature and human hand. Father Perrault sees it as a place to save all that is best in life, especially the beauty of art and the greatest wisdom of human thought. There is the implication that nature is both saved and enhanced with the right human presence. Suffering is not necessary in such a garden civilization, and long life is natural without stress and cruelty. There is almost no crime because everyone is satisfied and because of the ethic of moderation, which is seen as the way to maintain Eden. It is made plain by the double imagery, however, that Eden is as much a matter of perception as a physical place. Mallinson inverts the imagery, insisting that the world is normal and Shangri-la is hell. Philosophically, this emphasis on perception implies that it is human responsibility to create and maintain such a garden. Likewise, its loss is from human carelessness.
The outside world is seen as a violent storm compared to the peace of Shangri-la. Conway’s party is evacuated by airplane from a rebellion in Baskul as the story opens. We are constantly reminded of the horrors of The Great War (World War I) and the coming threat of the next war. Conway has lived through the war and though Mallinson sees him as a hero, Conway tells the High Lama that the war was responsible for taking away all his worldly ambition. One does not come out of a violent experience like that and remain the same. The story takes place in the 1930s, a time of worldwide economic depression, alluded to in the financial escapades of Barnard. Barnard turns out to be Chalmers Bryant, a Wall Street financier who lost a lot of people’s money in the crash. He explains it is because of greed, people wanting something for nothing. By contrast, Shangri-la is rich in gold. There is no poverty there.
Father Perrault tells Conway the purpose of Shangri-la is to protect “all the loveliest” and “perishable” things that could be crushed by “war, lust, and brutality” (Chapter 8, p. 144). Through his clairvoyant vision he has foreseen a “homicide” that “would rage so hotly over the world” that every defenseless thing would be lost. Perrault says “we pray to outlive the doom that gathers around on every side” (Chapter 8, pp. 144-45). They must protect the human heritage in a “dying age” hoping to wait while “passions are spent” (Chapter 8, p. 145). Conway feels the “world outside” is “already brewing for the storm” (Chapter 8, p. 145). Hilton’s book was felt by many readers to be accurately prophetic of World War II, the clouds of which were already apparent with “the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy” (Chapter 8, p. 144). When Father Perrault gives leadership of Shangri-la to Conway, he says there is coming a storm “as the world has not seen before. There will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos” (Chapter 10, p. 180). Perrault says Conway will outlive the storm. He calls Shangri-la “a single lifeboat riding the seas in a gale” (Chapter 10, p. 178). They can only take a few survivors, like an ark. Shangri-la is a difficult place to attain; few get there because of the inhuman mountain storms raging just outside the pass. The people who make it arrive there on the point of death and then miraculously revive in the serenity.