Book Review and Plot Summary: "Lost Horizon" by James Hilton

"Lost Horizon" by James Hilton is the simple yet compelling story of four strangers who are kidnapped and brought to the now legendary valley of Shangri-la. The plot of "Lost Horizon" is laced with adventure, danger, friendships and subtle deceptions. James Hilton’s novel starts out with a meeting between two friends concerning one of their mutual friends, Hugh Conway. The story then quickly develops into an adventure and survival story and moves on to become a tale of a place where people contemplate the world around them without involving themselves while living unnaturally long lives. "Lost Horizon" has a very intriguing open ending that leaves the reader pondering all sorts of philosophical questions.

At the start of the main story of "Lost Horizon", a soldier named Hugh Conway finds himself aboard a military aircraft with three other passengers, Roberta Brinklow, Henry Barnard and Charles Mallinson. A short way into their journey they realize that their plane has been hijacked. The hijacker has been flying the plane since takeoff and they are now far off course. The man has a gun and is refusing to allow the passengers to leave the plane, even when he stops for fuel.

The reader quickly finds that the main character, Hugh Conway, is a man who rolls with the punches. The situation hardly disturbs him and his fellow passengers seem to admire him for what they view as bravery, Hugh on the other hand considers it laziness. Mallinson soon reveals himself to be the malcontent of the group, while Barnard is the adventurous American. Roberta Brinklow is a missionary who seems to be a very practical woman, even if she is stiflingly religious.

Their plane ride abruptly ends in Kuen-Lun mountain range in Tibet when their kidnapper lands the plane in the midst of the mountains. The kidnapper dies soon after the difficult landing without revealing to them the reason for the kidnapping. They have no food and are ill-equipped for a jaunt through the snowy mountains of Tibet.

They spend the first night in the aircraft and wander out into the daylight the following morning to get a better look at their surroundings. They see a group of men coming toward them down a mountain slope. When the men reach them, the companions are curious if they will guide them to food and shelter, the men agree. One of the men speaks English and they soon learn that these men are Tibetan and Chinese monks.

The monks take them on an arduous climb up a mountain pass. After hours of climbing they reach their destination, a Tibetan Lamasery in the valley of Shangri-la. The travelers are quickly fed, bathed and otherwise made comfortable. The travelers are eager to leave, with the possible exception of Conway. They ask Chang (the English-speaking monk), if they will be able to procure a guide for the difficult journey out of the mountains. Chang is very cryptic in his responses. The only answer he gives is that porters will be arriving sometime soon and that they might possibly guide them out.

Conway quickly begins to like the lamasery and enjoy the peaceful surroundings of Shangri-la. Roberta begins to see a need for a missionary of the Christian persuasion in Shangri-la and she slowly decides to stay. The reader soon discovers that Barnard is a wanted man, so he is easily persuaded to remain as well. Mallinson however cannot bring himself to enjoy the lamasery and refuses to stay any longer than he absolutely has to. This complicates things when Conway befriends the High Lama and learns that they were kidnapped for the purpose of remaining at Shangri-la. Conway keeps this secret and befriends the High Lama.

The High Lama begins to tell Conway the story of his life at Shangri-la. The man claims to have lived for hundreds of years and tells Conway that he will too if he stays at the lamasery. It seems that all of the inhabitants of the lamasery have lived well beyond their years and look much younger than they are. The catch to all of this is that if any of them go further away than the valley their years will immediately catch up to them. Even in the valley they must return to the lamasery after a period of time.

Shortly after Conway learns all of this the High Lama dies. It seems to the reader then that Conway has resigned himself to stay at Shangri-la and live the long and peaceful life of its inhabitants. Then Conway is confronted by Mallinson who says that he has arranged for the porters to guide them off of the mountain immediately. The others have already decided to stay so it is only Mallinson, Conway and a seemingly young woman from the lamasery. Conway refuses, but when Mallinson comes back to inform Conway that he can’t leave without him, Conway gives in.

At this point the main part of "Lost Horizon" ends and the reader returns to the meeting of two friends concerning Conway. This meeting only gives us small bits of information about what may have happened to Conway. It seems one of the friends has seen Conway and heard his story, but that Conway has disappeared once again. The friend made several enquiries about Conway, but only came up with information at a hospital in Tibet. A hospital worker saw Conway shortly after his descent form the mountain, the worker says that he appeared with an old woman who died shortly thereafter.

This leaves you to wonder what happened to Mallinson. Also was this old woman the very same woman who was young before they left the valley? Is it possible that the High Lama was telling the truth or did Conway lose both of his traveling companions and the old lady was a good Samaritan who found him? Hilton never explains and you never find out if Conway returned to Shangri-la, though you get the sense that he did.


Shangri-la first appeared to the public in James Hilton’s "Lost Horizon", which was published in the 1930's. Since then, this fictional valley has become synonymous with paradise. In fact, I’ve met readers who haven’t read "Lost Horizon" and many believe that Shangri-la is an ancient myth. However, this paradise that is perceived really doesn’t exist in "Lost Horizon". James Hilton spends very little time explaining this valley, the novel is more about moderation, aversion to war and the subtle relationships between human beings than it is about paradise.

Shelly Barclay

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