Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book Review: Lost Horizon by James Hilton

“In sight of Karakal misgivings faded, and qualms about his three companions were lost in an uncanny acceptance of the new world that lay so far beyond their guesses. There came a time, he realized, when the strangeness of everything made it increasingly difficult to realize the strangeness of anything; when one took things for granted merely because astonishment would have been as tedious for oneself as for others.”                       
                                                                                                                                                                    -  from Lost Horizon  

   First introduced to the stories of James Hilton through the classic film “Random Harvest” with Greer Garson and Ronald Coleman (there is genius right there!) and having read a fair amount about “Lost Horizon” itself, I was prepared for the book...or so I thought. However, what I was not expecting was the crystalline sharpness of the prose as it echoed the frigid and withdrawn beauty of the Himalayas. Indeed the entire skill of the author in keeping every point of the story remote and on a higher–nigh fantastic plain was incredible. He even practically ignores the verdant valley of Shangri-La rather focusing on the higher clarity of the mountains above. Really, the quotation above describes the entire storyline of “Lost Horizon” itself as it follows the stories of four travelers and languidly hints at the life of the monks and people of the mountain valley as they pursue their lives, free from the horror of war and the wild rush of civilization.

Hence, (perhaps not very surprisingly) I found myself linking it in my mind to quite another story - “Brigadoon”. Both show the innocence and beauty the world was fast forgetting in the new enlightenment of technology. Both show general disillusionment. And both tell of villages (or in the case of “LH”, a monastery) set apart from time and the rest of the world. Brigadoon has its Dominie; Shangri-la its High Lama. So in some ways the stories do address the same problems the world faces. Yet several of the key points are quite different. Brigadoon's “Blissen” is directly from God. Shangri-La's is a remote state based on the eating of a special herb and the unique air of the valley resulting in a high state of mental clarification. Shangri-La's peace and contentment is from its training of the mind and body into a state of perfect moderation. Brigadoon's is quite the opposite as the entire story is a vibrant romance with dance and laughter and love as it swirls with the pulse of village life. One of my favorite differences is that while Shrangi-La has to replenish its inhabitants through any means they can–even kidnapping–and once there they must stay, whether they will or no. Brigadoon is surprised–a very emotion of which the High Lama would not have approved–at the sight of strangers and the only way to stay there is if–as the Dominie tells Tommy Albright–they love not Brigadoon itself, but someone there. It is at this point that the order of Shangri-La would have died as one man–from horror at such extravagance of feeling; that is if shock itself was not too fiery an emotion.

In the end, they are both unique stories, each having strong points; both could trigger different reactions in different personalities. One of the good points “Lost Horizon” raises is the hearty futility and foolishness of war, however the whole basis of Shangri-La turns on the idea of moderation. Or in other words, a state of being lukewarm–and that I cannot approve. According to the apostle Paul, it is one of the worst states to be in! We are to love laughter and light, and the more I ponder the idea of a perfectly moderated existence, the less it appeals to me. I like adventures and spirited horses and cats that behave like excitable kittens. At the same time, however, we are to strive for perfection in all our doings and those cool, remote, crystalline drinks of creation caught in mountains and meadows and libraries and in all the quiet pathways of God's world do fill our hearts with another part of life. So keep “Lost Horizon” for those times–and enjoy the sip. 

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