Is there a link between the famous novel Lost Horizon written by James Hilton, and The Eye of Revelation by Peter Kelder?
At the heart of both books is the discovery of some magical ‘fountain of youth’ that reverses aging – and the places where these secrets were held were in remote Tibetan monasteries. Interestingly the main characters featured in both books are ex-British Army officers who had worked in the diplomatic corps.
Hilton’s lost paradise on earth, “Shangri-La,” lies in a beautiful Tibetan valley, cut off from the rest of the world, where people live in harmony with nature. Here the ravages of time and history are held back, and people live to extraordinary ages. This book has a lost-in-a-dream-like quality to it.
Published in 1933, Lost Horizon struck a chord when Western civilization seemed hell-bent on destruction, and war was in the air. Tibet was the ideal setting for Hilton’s novel as the country was still largely unmapped, insular, forbidden to foreigners, and full of untold mysteries. Shangri-La signified a perfect escape from the troubles of the outside world.
Peter Kelder’s 1939 account, The Eye of Revelation, was released six years after Lost Horizon. It is less utopic and more instructional than Hilton’s, containing information on how we can apply the monks’ teaching for ourselves. According to the lamas, the only difference between youth and old age is the spin rate of the chakras, and the way to get these vortexes spinning rapidly again is by carrying out the five simple exercises they call ‘Rites.’
An intriguing and perhaps revealing aspect is that both books described their monastery’s libraries. In Lost Horizon, Shangri-La’s library is described as “lofty and spacious, and containing a multitude of books so retiringly housed in bays and alcoves that the whole atmosphere was more of wisdom than of learning, of good manners rather than seriousness.”
From this description, it is clear Hilton’s account is fictional (as he said it was.) Tibetan manuscripts are not in bound books like we are familiar with in the West but are rolled up in scrolls like the ones in the photograph above.
In Kelder’s account, there was a “large, well-ordered room which was used as a kind of library for ancient manuscripts. At one end was a full-length mirror.”
What is true and what is false in these books?
Hilton’s book Lost Horizon is much more descriptive of Tibet, its environs, and its people, whereas Kelder’s Eye of Revelation focuses on passing on the monks’ teachings. Both contain elements of what appears to be accurate, but other features seem more fictionalized. In Hilton’s case, he has made his sources public, but neither Kelder nor his monastery has ever been found.
“Hilton finished writing Lost Horizon at Woodford Green in April 1933. He had never visited Tibet or the Himalayas, but he had read a great deal about the place and its history, religion, customs, and travelogues. In his interview with the New York Times on 26 July 1936, Hilton said that he ‘cribbed” his Tibetan material from the British Museum Library).” The Himalayan Journal
Another source of Hilton’s information is believed to have been Joseph Rock, an Austrian-American botanist and explorer who had traveled to Tibet in the 1920s and 1930s. Fascinating accounts of Rock’s travels were published in National Geographic Magazine articles. Jane Wyatt, co-star in the 1937 Lost Horizon movie, said James told her Rock’s articles had influenced him.
What are the differences between the two accounts?
The most significant difference between the two accounts is the absence of anything resembling the Five Tibetan Rites movements. These are unique to the Eye of Revelation. The closest Lost Horizon gets to describing anything close to yoga-like practices is Conway’s (the lead character) description of the head lama’s anti-aging experiences.
“His mind remained so extraordinarily clear that he even embarked upon a study of certain mystic practices that the Indians call yoga, and which are based upon various special methods of breathing.”
It is well known today that breathing exercises continue to perform a significant role in Tibetan meditation practices, yet breathing was only loosely mentioned in The Eye of Revelation. Only when asked if there was anything else that went with the Rites did ‘Bradford’ instruct, “stand erect with hands on hips between the Five Rites and take one or two breaths.” Was Hilton’s book, published in 1933, the inspiration for Kelder’s, published in 1939?
Is Hilton the author of The Eye of Revelation? Some people have put forward this suggestion, but it doesn’t make sense. Why would Hilton use someone else’s name when he was already well known, and a further book would have sold well? Something like: “Shangri-La’s Secret Practices,” for example.
In a 1936 article interview with James Hilton in the New York Sun, the journalist Eileen Creelman wrote, ‘somehow the libel law crept into the conversation. Mr Hilton told how English authors had to be careful even about some of the places they described as someone had been successfully sued after he recognized the description of the cottage the plaintiff owned’.
For these reasons, I do not believe that James Hilton is the author of The Eye of Revelation.
At the same time, it cannot be ruled out that Kelder did, in fact, capitalize on the popularity of the Lost Horizon, adding elements to the story that did not exist before. The Five Tibetan Rites’ movements work without question (as millions can testify), but perhaps the narrative around their discovery was enhanced in various ways.There is also a mention of "Shangri-La" in The Eye of Revelation on page 4. Kelder writes that after declining to go with Colonel Bradford to try and find the Lamasery:
"In the press of every-day affairs Colonel Bradford and his “Shangri-La” had grown dim in my memory."
It is clear to me that the publisher, who was himself a writer on mysticism and wellness, contributed elements to The Eye of Revelation. For example, the book suggests rubbing butter into your scalp to re-grow hair. Since Tibetan monks shave their heads this is highly unlikely to have been their advice.
The fact that the publisher may have added elements is not as unlikely as it seems. In antique book collector Jerry Watt’s (RIP) article, Influence of Others on the Five Tibetan Rites, Watt provides convincing details about Harry Gardiner, the publisher of The Eye of Revelation, who almost certainly added his own material to the book.However, for the moment, Kelder, his monastery, and its teachings continue to remain a mystery.
For fans of Lost Horizon -
- Listen to James Hilton describing the dream-like state in which he wrote Lost Horizons.
- Read a fascinating account of two explorers following in the footsteps of Joseph Rock in an attempt to find “Shangri-La.
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