King Henry VIII becomes embroiled in a diplomatic dispute over territory with Prince Charles of Castille, and sends a delegation of diplomats, including More, to negotiate. The negotiations are even-tempered but not immediately successful, and both sides break off for a few days to await further instructions from their rulers. In this time, More travels to Antwerp, where he spends time with his friend, Peter Giles. One day, More spots Giles speaking with a bearded man whom More takes to be a ship's captain. Giles introduces More to Raphael Hythloday, and while it turns out that Hythloday is a world traveler, he is a philosopher rather than a captain. The three get along well and decide to return to Giles's garden to converse.
There, Hythloday relates the history of his travels. He accompanied the famed explorer Amerigo Vespucci on three of his four voyages. On the last of these ventures, he decided to remain behind at a garrisoned fort with a few of Vespucci's men rather than return to Portugal. From the garrison, he traveled with five other men through various countries, eventually crossing the equator. By luck, he was on a ship that was blown off course to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). From there, it was easy to find a ship headed to Calcutta and then another back to Portugal. During this time, Hythloday proved a keen observer of social practices, and he relates both the absurd and the practical to More and Giles. More explains to the reader that while all of Hythloday's tales are interesting, the most intriguing is his description of the time he spent among the Utopians, the inhabitants of the island of Utopia. It is this description that More will paraphrase for the reader. Before beginning though, More explains that he thinks it is important to describe the conversation that led up to Hythloday's description of Utopian society.
Sir Thomas More did, indeed, travel to Flanders on behalf of King Henry VIII for the purpose of negotiating with the Spanish. An actual man named Peter Giles did live in Flanders, and the two being friends, it is likely they spent time together. The events described by the character More, however, are fictional. Though occasional readers mistook Hythloday for a real man, Sir Thomas More had no intention of hiding the fictiveness of his story. His methods of illumination, though, were perhaps too esoteric; Hythloday is described as a man who knew some Latin and a great deal of Greek, supposedly clueing the reader in to the Greek origin of Hythloday's name, which means "speaker of nonsense." All the names of the peoples and cities Hythloday mentions in his travels are similar clues. Utopia, for example is a pun on two Greek words, Eutopia (good place) and Outopia (no place). Sadly, very few people knew Greek at the time Sir Thomas More wrote.
The fictional frame of Utopia allows Sir Thomas More to dramatize the discussion of issues and thereby explore those issues from multiple sides. It is worth noting, as does the critic David Wootton, that while More has the same name as Sir Thomas More, the pronoun for "I" in the language of Utopia is "he". Here, Sir Thomas More gives a subtle clue that while More bears his name and perhaps some of his views, Hythloday (the "he" who is also an "I") also embodies aspects of Sir Thomas More's beliefs and ideas. The fictional frame further allows Sir Thomas More to explore issues that, in a non-fiction work, might get him into trouble. It is no accident that Sir Thomas More gave his name to one of the conservative characters in the book that basically defends the status quo. The fictional More vociferously disagrees with Hythloday's more radical propositions such as the eradication of private property, and in doing so provides a sort of cover for Sir Thomas More. The disagreement by his namesake seems to imply, at least on the surface, that Sir Thomas More also disagrees with Hythloday. Of course, this is not true, but the simple fact of More's disagreement with Hythloday would make it hard to attack Sir Thomas More for Hythloday's views.
Sir Thomas More wrote Book 1 of Utopia in two parts. The first version served only as an introduction to Book 2, while the second version is far more subtle and explores many issues of More's day. The first version of Book 1 ended just before More's final sentence explaining that before going into a description of Utopia, he thought it would be worthwhile to describe the conversation leading up to that discussion.