The tale of an earthly paradise is one of the most enduring myths in the world. From the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh to the ‘Isles of the Blessed’ it has been a recurring theme through many bodies of literature spanning thousands of years. Thus, not surprisingly, modern people have also been enthralled by the dream of a lost paradise where the scars of time and history have been withheld, where human beings live in perfect harmony with nature, and with all other beings. These ideas manifested in the 1933 novel by James Hilton as a Shangri-La.
In 1933, the English novelist James Hilton wrote the classic novel ‘Lost Horizon’. Set in the troubled times preceding Second World War, the novel tells the tale of a community in a lamasery in the lost Tibetan valley of Shangri-La, cut off from the rest of the world and from time. All the wisdom of the human race and cultural treasures are stored in this place. An airplane with a group of Westerners crash-land in this remote valley surrounded by the highest mountains in the world.
The location of the hidden valley is never precisely pinpointed, but on its last fateful flight the plane appears to be heading northeast from Afghanistan across the Karakoram mountains, part of the Himalayan range, and Hilton definitely imagined that it landed somewhere in the then unexplored far west of Tibet. The inhabitants of Shangri-La were opposed to all forms of violence and materialism. The lamasery was situated under the shadow of a dazzling white mountain, ‘the loveliest mountain on earth … an almost perfect cone of snow, a dazzling pyramid so radiant, so serenely poised that it scarcely seemed to be real.’
‘Lost horizon’ stirred up the hopes of the people of those turbulent times. In the increasingly pessimistic days of the 1930s, when Western civilization seemed to embark on a path of self-destruction and as Carl Jung put it, ‘the smell of burning was in the air’ – the story of an earthly paradise had a ravishing appeal. Tibet in the 1930s was still a land of mystery, one of the last unmapped places in the world, a forbidden country.
Hilton’s novel reflects the conviction that somehow our world would survive, and that our connection with our past would not be entirely erased, even as we move steadily towards an uncertain future. The tale of Shangri-La is something that we still need to believe in today.