The author relates how during his residence in the Low Countries on official business, he happened to encounter an acquaintance, Peter Giles, who was talking with a man of somewhat unusual appearance and dress. Giles introduced the stranger as Raphael Hythloday, explaining that he had many fascinating experiences to relate as the result of his extensive travels. More then invited the two to his house to talk and have dinner together. The conversation of the three men through the rest of the day constitutes the substance of the work.
The setting and the characters — all but one — are based on an actual fact. More was sent to Bruges in 1515 as a member of a commission to negotiate with a delegation from the emperor for trade agreements. During the summer, the negotiations were recessed for several weeks, during which time More, at leisure, visited Antwerp, where he met Peter Giles. Erasmus, who knew and admired both men, arranged their introduction, being eager to have them get acquainted. They became close friends and spent a good deal of time together during More's residence abroad.
The introduction of Raphael Hythloday into the story is purely fictitious, but is, of course, the sine qua non, the artful device that contributes greatly to the fascination of the work. Without Hythloday, the book would have been a treatise on government, but with this ancient mariner describing what he purports to relate from firsthand knowledge, More succeeded in stirring the imagination of his audience. Even as early as 1515, Europe had become intensely excited by the accounts of Columbus and Vasco da Gama and their successors and the tales they brought back from the Americas and India. There is evidence that More had read the accounts of at least three of the expeditions of Amerigo Vespucci, and he had undoubtedly heard a great deal of talk of various other recent discoveries.
It was the combining of the travel-adventure story with the strange account of a society founded on reason and justice in a country over the far horizon that gave to Utopia its special appeal.