Believing in Fiction: Shangri-La

At first glance, the novel "Lost Horizon" by JamesHilton is just a book. It is arguably a very good book and a classic, but it is just a book, nonetheless. Looking closer you see that it is subtly more than just a book. It is a modern example of a fact that has existed in cultures as long as the written word has. It is a fact that many may deny for their own purposes and which may be flaunted by some for their own purposes as well. The fact that the years between the 1933 publishing date of "Lost Horizon" and now have glaringly highlighted is that fiction can become legend and/or fact to people who are ignorant of a story's origins. If enough people become ignorant of it, that work of fiction may even become widely known as history.

The bulk of "Lost Horizon" centers on a monastery known as Shangri-La. This monastery is a place where a person can find the secret to immortality. It is a place high up in the Himalaya Mountains where monks live in near complete isolation from the world. Now, there are subtle seeds of corruption in Shangri-La. However, that is not the side of Shangri-La that has been latched onto. To some, it has become a legend on par with the fountain of youth, the Garden of Eden, etc. However, Shangri-La is completely fictional. No, not fictional in the way that Atlantis may be half-legend, half-truth, fictional in the way that James Hilton made it up. It is completely and utterly impossible for this place to be real.

So, why do some people think of Shangri-La as a legend of paradise on Earth? Well, it is most likely because the name Shangri-La and its links to an earthly paradise have been described in other works of fiction since 1933. Its name has become synonymous with a somewhat supernatural, yet earthly, utopia. If a person were to have never read "Lost Horizon" or have been told that the name and place originated with the book, it would be easy for them to assume that it is a legend that has been passed on for centuries in Tibet and now the world. Luckily, we also have written works that explain that Shangri-La is a fiction created by James Hilton.

For the purposes of this article, we are going to use the bible as an example, but only because it is so widely disputed, beloved, dismissed and read. It is the most popular book of all time. Now, we know that certain parts of the bible are authentic history. Places and people that are mentioned are known to have existed. However, there are parts of the bible that are not authenticated and are, well, difficult to believe without faith. Is it possible that these parts of the bible were written as fiction, something like "Lost Horizon", but with a social lesson, and the line between fiction and history became blurred over time?

Another interesting thing is that societies seem to select what they will accept as fact and what they will declare fiction. For example, stories found engraved on Egyptian artifacts and monuments are widely regarded as fiction, despite the fact that the people who wrote them gave no indication that they did not believe what they were writing. On the other hand, people choose to believe some texts that are just as far-fetched, in many cultures. Regardless, it is our right to pick and choose what we want to believe.

"Lost Horizon" and Shangri-La show us that a fictional novel, or aspects of it, can lose its fiction status.  It makes one wonder how many times this has happened throughout history. Not with novels specifically, but any work of fiction. There is a lot of unverified or unverifiable writing out there that is thought to be factual by some, but could easily be fiction, and vice-versa. The implications of this are astounding.

Shelly Barclay


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