Subtle Clues and Hints Given by Thomas More about the Island of Utopia — Part XI

The central question to my argument is: has More given any ‘clues’ as to where he has got some information in creating the island of Utopia? Yes, but not in the names of persons or places.

by Laksiri Fernando

( February 27, 2017, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) This short chapter is about three letters which were included in the initial publications of Thomas More’s Utopia as Preface. The importance of this chapter is its link to the main argument of the book, “Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka),” and the concluding chapter summing up and expanding on the main argument. Otherwise, this chapter does not present any details about his ‘treatise’ on Utopia. If any reader wishes to go through the original letters, they are undoubtedly humorous and enjoyable reading. The text of Utopia published by Wordsworth Classics of World Literature (1997) gives those interesting letters.

In the last letter, ostensibly referring to a critic, that ‘some of the details of the Island are absurdities,’ More says, ‘if he were adding fiction to reality, then he would have given clues for the scholars to find the truth about the Island and its details.’ There he was actually meaning the opposite, as he has been doing in many occasions throughout the book. That is why we should take his clues and hints seriously.

The publication link to the original book is:



IN THE INITIAL publications of Utopia, there were three letters included, two of which Thomas More wrote to Peter Giles, and the other one by Peter Giles to Jerome Busleyden. These letters confirm that the idea of Utopia was conceived in Antwerp, and several others also were involved in the conceptualization of the book. Antwerp is the major port city of Flanders (a province of present day Belgium), a stopover/home to many travelers of that time. This is a major reason to speculate that they came across a travel manuscript. A brief review of these letters here reveals clues to unravel the dilemma of the Island and the character of Raphael Hythloday. The letters also shed light on several other matters important in understanding the circumstances under which the book was written.

The main thrust of the letters was to assure the readers that the Island that they were talking about is real and the person who related the information, Raphael Hithloday, is also real. These claims were considered as literary devices by many reviewers. In subsequent translations, these letters for some reason were dropped. Therefore, these do not appear in Part II of this book as the manuscript that was used for that purpose does not contain these letters. However, these letters taken from other sources shed light on the nature of the discourses presented in Utopia and also the speculation of the actual island of Utopia.

The first letter was written by Thomas More from London to Peter Giles in Antwerp. The letter begins by apologizing for the delay in sending the manuscript for printing.

“I am almost shamed, right well-beloved Peter Giles, to send this book of the Utopian commonwealth, well-nigh after a year’s space, which I am sure you looked for within a month and a half.”[1]

He admits that there was no cause for the delay as Master Raphael has rather eloquently related the story of Utopia and the preceding discourses in Greek and what he had only to do was to write them in simple and straightforward Latin. Then what delayed the sending of the ‘Booke’ was his other work. Apart from his heavy official work as a lawyer and a judge and many more, he says, “For when I come home, I must communicate with my wife, chat with my children, and talk with my servants.” These are necessary things that one has to do at home or otherwise, “a man will be a stranger in his own house.”

It is undoubtedly an interesting letter which gives a humane flair to the whole work of Utopia. Moreover, it is also a vindication of what he says about the family life in the island of Utopia. There is congruence and harmony between what he believed in private life and what he discoursed in Utopia through a real or an imaginary island. It is also humorous. He was so occupied in the house, after coming back from work.

“When do I write then?” He asks.

He has spoken “no word of sleep, neither yet of meat.” He claims, “I therefore do win and get only that time which I steel from sleep and meat.”

Thomas More the Thinker

More pertinent to our query here is what is revealed about Hythloday, Utopia and its location. There had been a controversy between More and ‘his boy,’ John Clement,[2] about some details regarding the island of Utopia. More had thought that Hythloday said “the bridge of Amaurote, which goeth over the river Anyder, is five hundred paces, that is to say, half a mile in length.” But Clement has disagreed. He has said “that two hundred of those paces must be plucked away, for that the river containeth there not above three hundred paces in breadth.”

Now this is a matter that More was asking in his letter to Peter Giles to recollect himself or verify from Hythloday directly as if Hythloday is a real person possibly hanging around Antwerp even by this time. Then he refers to a more important matter for verification and he doesn’t know through whose fault this has happened “whether through mine, or yours, or Raphael’s.”

“For neither we remembered to inquire of him, nor he to tell us, in what part of that new world Utopia situate…as well for that I am ashamed to be ignorant in what sea that Island standeth, whereof I write so long a treatise…”

This he says is also important because there are some men, including a professor of divinity, who wish to visit Utopia. And in the case of the latter the purpose is partly to go there because “he may further and increase our religion, which in there already luckily began.” The last statement is important. In the case of Ceylon, in fact Catholicism had already begun by the time of 1516 after the arrival of the Portuguese initially in 1505 or 1501.

“Wherefore I most earnestly desire you, friend Peter, to talk with Hythloday, if you can, face to face, or else to write your letters to him, and so to work on this matter that in this my book there may neither anything be found which is untrue, neither anything be lacking which is true.”        

For the above letter, Giles didn’t directly reply to More, but for many of More’s questions he answered in his letter to Jerome Busleyden dated 1 November 1516.[3] This latter letter was sent while sending the manuscript of Utopia to him for publication with a glowing praise for More and his work, starting “Thomas More, the singular ornament of this our age…” He said More’s Utopia far excel Plato’s Republic. The singular effort of this exercise, along with what More was to assert, Raphael Hythloday was a real person. There is also a clue that the Island or the descriptions are more than real. Giles says, “I see somewhat more than when I heard Raphael Hythloday uttering and pronouncing his own words.”

Although this was a letter to Busleyden, the intent was to impress upon the readers as this letter was to be printed in the book as a Preface. So it says:

“Yet the saelfsame things as oft as I behold and consider them drawn and painted out with Master More’s pencil, I am herewith so moved, so delighted, so inflamed, and so rapt, that sometimes methink I am presently conversant even in the island of Utopia.”

Then he proceeded to another matter noting that “I surely know nothing needful or requisite to be adjoined unto his writing.” Nevertheless he was sending “four verses written in the Utopian tongue, which after Master More’s departure, Hythloday by chance showed me.” And also with it “the alphabet of the same nation,” which has created much speculation among many writers thereafter as to its origin and source.

In writing to the journal Moreana in 1966, Duncan M. Derrett, noted the following.

“This writer has already expressed the opinion that a real traveller who had been in India was somewhere at the bottom of the Hythloday fable. The shape of the Utopian letters could be said in a way to confirm to a traveller’s report on the appearance of the Malayalam script, which must have been known to many Europeans at the time.”[4]   

Derrett also noted that what was printed as the alphabet could be quite a corrupted version since the shapes of the letters had to be newly created out of led to suit the printing. He highlighted the apology given by the printer in this respect.

But as for the personage of Raphael Hythloday, it is quite possible that the character at least in that name was fictitious, but the author/s conspired to trick the readers as to believe that the person either still living or recently dead, and the whole story of Utopia is real and truthful. On the More’s request to ask Hythloday, regarding the location of the Island of Utopia, the following was Giles’ answer.

“For we hear very uncertain news of him. Some report that he died in his journey homeward. Some again affirm that he returned into his country, but partly for that he could not away with the fashions of his country folks, and partly for that his mind and affection was altogether set and fixed upon Utopia, they say that he hath taken his voyage thitherward again.”

After the publication of Utopia, a central question undoubtedly was, whether it is real or imaginary or in either way to what extent. The second letter written by More to Gilles after the first edition in 1516 somewhat addresses this question yet again in an imaginary basis. An imaginary critic has asked “if it is supposed to be true, I consider some details to be rather absurd” and therefore, “I should like to know More’s real opinion.”

Now More quips, if he (the critic) has doubts about some details, then that means that he agrees with others. As to the ‘absurdities,’ what nation is free from absurdities, he asks? More pertinently the following is what he says about a possible combination of reality and imagery in this type of a work.

“I do not indeed deny that if I had determined to write about a commonwealth, and the idea of one had formed itself in my mind, I would not perhaps have thought it a sin to add fictitious details so that the truth, thus coated with honey, might be more palatable to my readers.”

But he vouched that this is not the case, and if it were the case then he would have given some clues (and only clues) “by which scholars would easily have been able to see through my design.” He has not done so because he has actually given obviously some outlandish and meaningless names such as Utopia, Anyder, Amourote and Ademus because they are true! Or if they so unbelieving, let them ask Hythloday. “I heard from some who had just come from Portugal that on March 1 last he was as well and strong as ever.”

The central question to my argument is: has More given any ‘clues’ as to where he has got some information in creating the island of Utopia? Yes, but not in the names of persons or places. It is possible that More never met a traveler in Antwerp called Hythloday or any other. What is more possible is that he came across a manuscript of a traveler through the help of Peter Giles in Antwerp which inspired his imagination in writing Utopia. The island that he came to know about not only gave him some physical description but also a social setting which could be developed into his Utopia and that is most possibly the pre-capitalist system in Ceylon during the 15th century where there was no private property among other things.


[1] All references to these letters are from Utopia: Thomas More, Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, London, 1997.

[2] John Clement was More’s attendant at that time who later became Professor of Greek at Oxford. He was there in Antwerp when the idea to write Utopia was conceived.

[3] Busleyden, Advisor to King Charles, was one of More’s close associates in Louvain and helped him printing the book through Theodore Martin. He was also the Founder of the College of Three Languages (Latin, Greek and Hebrew) in Louvain.

[4] Duncan M. Derrett, ‘The Utopian Alphabet,’ Moreana 2 (November 1966). Duncan Derrett was Professor of Oriental Laws in the University of London (1965-1982).

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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