The Way to Epiphany

  • Laurie Hovell McMillin


Western travelers have often expected something from Tibet. From James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933) to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Seven Years in Tibet (1997), something special is supposed to happen to Western travelers in Tibet. The industry standard for such transformation was set by Frank Capra’s film version of Lost Horizon (1937) in which the world-weary Conway is bewitched by the peaceable kingdom of Shangri-La. Thus, when Pico Iyer writes about certain magical moments in Tibet in 1988 or Frederick Lenz dreams of spiritual transformation and snowboarding in Surfing the Himalayas of 1997, they are participating in a time-honored custom: the myth of epiphany in Tibet.’ The myth of Tibetan epiphany is so common that it even appeared in a “Sylvia” cartoon in 1996. In this cartoon, the cats, up to their usual tricks, explain the whereabouts of the missing dog by saying “the dog had an epiphany.... He left for a more spiritual place.... Perhaps he’s in Tibet with monks... or on an ice floe with penguins.” The myth of epiphany is so common that any Anglophone text about travel to Tibet of the past hundred years seems incomplete without one. Tibet without revelation is like France without wine, Africa without lions, Egypt without pyramids.


Snow Leopard Spiritual Transformation Romantic Writer Travel Writ Magical Moment 
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  1. 1.
    See also James Hilton, Lost Horizon (New York: Pocket Books, 1960 [1933]), Jean-Jacques Annaud, Seven Years in Tibet (Columbia, 1997), Frank Capra, LostHorizon (Columbia, 1937), and Frederick Lenz, Sufing the Himalayas (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    James Joyce has been largely attributed with developing a literary notion of epiphany. See Harry Levin, James Joyce: A C ritical I ntroduction (Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions, 1960 [1941]), pp. 28–29.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard (New York: Penguin, 1978), p. 212, emphasis in original. Subsequent citations are noted by page number in the text.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Charlotte Watson, “The Search For Shangri-La,” Great Destinations (Supplement to the Minneapolis Star Tribune), October 1987, p. 6.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    These include Patrick French, Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer (London: Harper Collins, 1994), pp. 204–5 and Pico Iyer “Lost Horizons,” New York Review of Books, January 15, 1998, p. 14.Google Scholar

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© Laurie Hovell McMillin 2001

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  • Laurie Hovell McMillin

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