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Communication with Raphael Hythloday concerning the Best State of a Commonwealth
Sir Thomas More is in The Netherlands on a diplomatic mission for King Henry VIII. While there, he is introduced by his young friend Peter Giles to the mariner, Raphael Hythloday. Hythloday is an elderly man, sunburned and bearded, wearing a cloak thrown casually over his shoulders. More recognizes him as a mariner but Giles tells him that he is more than a mere sailor because he is both learned and observant. Having traveled extensively for a very long time, he has seen and lived with a number of interesting people with strange customs and habits. Peter tells More that Hythloday had traveled with the great voyager, Amerigo Vespucci, and in his last voyage had gone off with a few friends on his own where he had discovered a place called Utopia.
His curiosity whetted, More greets Hythloday warmly and invites him and Giles to his garden where the three sit down to discuss Hythloday's travels.
Sir Thomas More's Utopia is divided into two books. In the first book, the author establishes some very important points about contemporary English society and its inability to provide justice and decent living conditions to its people. In the second book, they account of Hythloday's travels to Utopia. In this way, More combines a travel-narrative with a philosophical tract about an ideal society that provides for its people and exhibits qualities of justice and reason.
Although based on certain events taking place in 1515 while on a trip to Bruges in the Netherlands, More creates Raphael Hythloday, the most important character of this work. His outward appearance is that of a typical sixteenth century mariner -- ruddy, bearded, casually dressed - yet Hythloday is more than what meets the eye. The reader is told that he is of Portuguese origin. He has given away inheritance to his family and embraced a life of adventure. He is well read and knows both Greek and Latin very well. He is observant, shrewd and greatly interested in all that he sees, rather like Ulysses in Homer's Odyssey. It is through More's use of Hythloday as a smokescreen that the tenets of Utopia society are elucidated. Therefor, More does not have to be completely responsible for everything that Hythloday says.
The three men -- More, the trusted servant of Henry VIII; Peter Giles, the rising young lawyer of Antwerp; and Raphael Hythloday, the unusual mariner, meet in More's house. It is important to note that More and Giles are real characters and the background is also real yet Utopia, as well as Raphael Hythloday are constructions of More's imagination. However, certain credence is given to this sailor and his adventurers due to the time period the book is set in.
During the early decades of the sixteenth century, the whole of Europe was filled with stories of the adventures of Columbus and Vasco da Gama and other sailors who had traveled across the world discovering new lands and exotic peoples. Therefore, it is not that far-fetched that More may have been inspired to create Hythloday based on stories he had read about the expeditions of Amerigo Vespucci and other discoverers.