Lost Horizon : Summary of Chapter 7-9
Summary of Chapter 7
Conway is excited to meet the High Lama, as if “on the threshold of discovery” (p. 118). Chang takes him up a spiral staircase to a gloomy hot room like a steam bath. On a chair sits a small and wrinkled man, like a “fading antique portrait in chiaroscuro” (p. 119). The High Lama is emaciated but has a great dignity, and Conway is dizzy under the gaze of his ancient eyes. He is dressed as a Chinese but speaks excellent English. Though Conway retains his skepticism he feels beatitude in the lama’s presence.
After tea the two chat and Conway finds himself opening up and speaking his mind directly to the lama. The High Lama then tells him the history of Shangri-la. He explains Christian missionaries came to China even in the Middle Ages. In 1719, four Capuchin friars traveled in the mountains looking for remnants of Nestorian Christianity, the early eastern church. Three died on the way, and the fourth was dying when he stumbled on the Valley of the Blue Moon. The people took care of him, and he recovered, and began to preach his religion.
The people were Buddhists but their monastery was decaying so the friar, Father Perrault, a Luxembourger, established a Christian monastery there. He moved in when he was 53 years old, in 1734. Though he labored with his hands in the first years, he was also a scholar and knew many languages. As a youth he had experienced the horrors of war. He discovered gold in the valley and the tangatse berry, a medicinal that was a mild narcotic prolonging life. He began taking the berry. Father Perrault was not an ascetic and liked the good things in life.
As he became more tranquil with old age, he began to study Buddhism and began mystic practices such as yoga and meditation. When he was over a hundred years old, he thought he was dying, but his mind was in a “snow-white calm,” and he recovered (p. 127). On the threshold of death he had a vision, which underpins the purpose of Shangri-la. He embarked on a rigorous discipline and became a legend because of his powers. He did not learn to levitate but he had telepathy and powers of healing.
In 1803, a second founder of the lamasery arrived, an Austrian named Henschell who was converted by Perrault and began collecting great art and books. He used the gold to buy what they needed from the world but was careful no one found the spot. There was one important proviso for coming to Shangri-la: anyone could come, but no one could leave. The lamasery needed new arrivals to keep going and went so far as to meet people nearby and guide them to the valley. Henschell died, shot by a newcomer. Conway looks at a likeness sketched of Henschell before he died, and he looks like a boy though he would have been an old man. From this evidence of prolonged life, Conway realizes that the lama he is speaking to is Father Perrault himself, over three hundred years old.
Commentary on Chapter 7
This and the next chapter unfold the mystery at the heart of Shangri-la. The talks Conway has with Father Perrault confirm his own tendency to mysticism and contemplation. Conway takes his skepticism in with him but does not bring it away with him, so powerful is the presence of the High Lama. Conway, who is a smooth talker by profession, drops his social and conventional self and speaks soul to soul with the ancient founder of Shangri-la. Here is a European who like himself is drawn to the east. Furthermore, Father Perrault seems to have found in eastern religion something to complement his own tradition. He has found peace and enlightenment.
Nestorian Christianity was established in China as the Church of the East in the medieval period. Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431, taught that Christ was not an incarnation of God, but had the two parts of his nature, God and man, loosely joined. This idea was heresy in the Catholic Church but was popular through Asia, and there was a Christian mission in Lhasa until the lamas expelled westerners there. Father Perrault and the other friars are on a mission to find any surviving Christian church in Tibet. Father Perrault receives a letter summoning him to Rome when he is too frail to go there and give his report; just as well, for he soon wants to protect his valley from discovery.
Hilton capitalizes on eastern traditions of medicine and herb lore to suggest a mythical drug to account for long life, the native tangatse berry, the narcotic addition to the food that Conway tastes. This joins the list of other legendary drugs, like the magic herb moly in Homer and soma in the Vedas.
Summary of Chapter 8
The High Lama pauses for refreshments, and they have tea. Conway wonders if he is using his telepathic powers, for he begins talking about what Conway was thinking of: music. Conway is surprised that the lamasery has a collection of western composers. Father Perrault says one of their order was a pupil of Chopin’s, and his own favorite composer is Mozart.
Conway asks if they really intend to keep his party here, forever. When Father Perrault says yes, Conway wonders why the four of them have been chosen. Perrault answers that they need to keep their numbers up, but since the Russian Revolution and Great War, travel in Tibet has been difficult. He admits that they cannot guarantee someone will like Shangri-la; they have found Nordic people and Europeans adapt best and live longer, so they are anxious to get some of them. The pilot, Talu, came up with the idea to fly people in and went off especially to get trained. The lamas let him do it. Father Perrault asks Conway to keep secret from the others for the time being that they must stay.
He then begins to sketch for Conway the difference between what his life would be like in the world where he will age quickly and what his life would be like in the lamasery where he will look the same age for decades. He “will pass from fleshly enjoyments into austerer but no less satisfying realms” (p. 141), ripening into wisdom with clear memory, and he will have time for study and friendship. Or he could choose solitude if he wishes.
If one leaves behind a wife and children, the pang of missing them will only last a decade, and then fade painlessly. Conway says he will miss no one; he is not married. He has no ambition to fulfill. He wasn’t that happy with his job. The High Lama pronounces Conway to have the “passionlessness” and clarity of mind of someone 100 years old. Conway gives the War as the reason for his early aging: “you can label me ‘1914-1918’” (p. 143).
Conway still doesn’t really understand the purpose of Shangri-la, and so, living a long life just for the sake of longevity doesn’t make sense. He isn’t sure life has any point anyway.
Father Perrault then tells him his vision of a coming time of war and the extinction of everything beautiful in the world, all the wisdom of the ages. They have therefore been collecting all the precious books, music, scriptures, philosophies, to save them at Shangri-la for a better time. They will save the world’s heritage. Conway is moved and knows what Perrault is talking about, for he has seen the gathering storm and lived through part of it. As he leaves, Conway unexpectedly kneels to Father Perrault as to a saint.
Commentary on Chapter 8
This chapter contains Perrault’s vision and prophecy of the dark times to come, and in many ways it did come true in the holocaust of World War II. His idea of saving culture was precisely the task of the Christian monasteries during the Dark Ages in Europe. They became the lighthouses of knowledge, with the monks preserving manuscripts and making copies by hand. Father Perrault feels that Shangri-la can do such a service to the world and that the lamasery will be untouched because of its isolation.
The vision and purpose suit Conway, and he kneels in acknowledgment of the High Lama’s noble goal, indicating his assent to take part in such a lofty plan. This vision of saving culture during a time of destruction appealed to Hilton’s readers and is still relevant and moving. Some points are hard to swallow, however.
Although Hilton does attempt to be multicultural in valuing all religions and races, and in the lamas’ attempt to get people of all countries into Shangri-la, like an Ark, with some of each type, Perrault’s speech about certain races being more successful as lamas might appear somewhat racist today. The Chinese and Tibetans, who are native to the area, and who are already Buddhists, are deemed less worthy, long-lived, or awake to spiritual life than the Nordic and European races.
Another difficult point is when Father Perrault comments that a married man would forget his family after a decade, without pain. This idea of non-attachment makes sense in terms of a voluntary vow to dedicate oneself to the inner life. It seems a bit harsh forcibly to separate someone from family who has no wish for such a life, like Mallinson. Perrault implies that they must all make sacrifices for the sake of survival as if they are already in the war. Thus, Talu’s kidnapping was morally justified.
Conway is not interested in long life for its own sake, because frankly he is a melancholy man, changed by the War, unable to live a normal life with marriage and so forth. He understands the value of long life in terms of leadership, however, of doing something he excels at for the sake of all. In Shangri-la he could devote himself to worthwhile study and wisdom, sharing the fruits of this with others after the “storm” of war has passed. He has already been the man of action and is burned out with that ideal. He is also disillusioned with having a job that takes a small portion of his intelligence. As Perrault guesses, Conway’s heart and soul are not in his job, but they could be engaged in this nobler work.
Summary of Chapter 9
In the morning the others question Conway about his audience with the High Lama. Mallinson wants to know what he said about the porters. Miss Brinklow wants to know if he approves of missionaries here. Conway says he will disappoint them, because he did not mention any of these things. To Mallinson’s question about whether the High Lama can be trusted, Conway says that he seems honorable.
Mallinson stares at him, remarking that Conway was good in the Baskul affair but seems to be going to pieces now. Mallinson thinks he doesn’t care about what happens to them. Conway is defensive and puts up a mask. He is surprised to see that he takes the part of the High Lama and keeps the secret about how they have to remain there. He realizes his companions would think him a traitor. Conway is impatient of Mallinson’s schoolboy worship of him as a hero. He finds it impossible to pretend what he isn’t in the atmosphere of Shangri-la.
Mallinson and Miss Brinklow then start in with suspicions about Lo-Tsen. What is a pretty girl doing in a monastery? Miss Brinklow is studying Tibetan grammar at the breakfast table and mentions that the morals are lax here. Conway wants to be alone after this interview with his “uncanny acceptance of the new world that lay so far beyond their guesses” (p. 150). When he is not with them, “the horizon lifted like a curtain; time expanded and space contracted” (pp. 150-151).
Conway becomes friends with Chang to whom he can speak openly about his experience and thoughts. Chang tells him after a probationary period of five years in which a new aspirant leaves the old life behind, the process of retarding age begins and he would look forty for half a century. Chang arrived at twenty-two and is now ninety-seven and near his full lamahood. It is assumed that after a century, all the passions have disappeared. Chang expects to live at least another century, or even more. Conway asks what would happen if Chang left the valley. He says he would die if he were gone more than a few days. They had a case where a young looking man left for three months and came back an old man.
Conway begins to meet the other lamas. He meets a German named Meister who came during the 1880s. Then he meets Alphonse Briac who had been a student of Chopin. Conway finds all the men he meets have an ageless quality and “calm intelligence” (p. 155). One white haired man had been a curate during the time of the Brontes and is now writing a book on them. Conway is very happy with his new friends or playing the piano or listening to Lo-Tsen play.
Conway asks Chang about Lo-Tsen and learns she was a Manchu princess who was traveling to her wedding but got lost in the mountains and came to the lamasery. This happened in 1884 when she was eighteen. Chang says she took it very hard at first but has come around.
Conway learns the High Lama spends almost all his time in clairvoyant meditation and does not expect to see him again for a while, but he is summoned a month later. They have tea and speak of Conway’s fellows, and both agree that Brinklow and Barnard will adjust, but Mallinson will be a problem.
Commentary on Chapter 9
Conway takes to life at the lamasery like a duck to water. He is far more at home with the lamas than with the other visitors. He finds himself in a false position with his companions and knows they would think him a traitor if they knew what he was up to. He cannot explain his happiness to them. He lives a double life as a lama in training and a British official, not knowing which life is more real.
Conway has no trouble in believing the lamas live very long lives when he meets someone who knew Chopin and someone who knew the Brontes. He no longer goes by appearances. All the lamas have an ageless quality. His questions to Chang about what happens if he leaves the valley are important for future events. The youthful appearance would disappear and the lama would die. This is another reason they can’t leave. Lo-Tsen’s background and age are also important. According to Chang, she would be about seventy years old.
It is very unusual for a new aspirant to meet so often with the High Lama, so it is obvious Conway is an unusual and special person with high aptitude for this vocation.