The book begins with a short six-line poem, followed by a four-line poem and a letter of greetings from Thomas More, the author, to his friend Peter Giles. The two poems, written by Utopians, describe Utopia as an ideal state.
Thomas More was the Under-sheriff of the City of London, in the service of King Henry VIII. More's friend, Peter Giles, was a corrector at a printing press and a clerk of the city of Antwerp. The prefatory letter concerns the printing and editing of the manuscript and also tells a story of how More first learned of the Utopians.
More recalls his meeting with Raphael Hythloday, for it is Raphael who relayed the story of Utopia to More. More has simply recorded what he has heard, striving to be as accurate as possible. In this regard, Peter Giles can be of use for he was the one who first introduced More to Hythloday. In his letter, More apologizes for taking such a long time to send the manuscript to Gilesnearly a year, when it was expected to take only six weeks. More explains that his work has kept him very busy and when he comes home very later he must devote time to his family. As a result, More has hardly any time left for himself. More is uncertain about a few small details, for example, the span of a bridge that crosses the Utopian river of Anyder. More hopes that Giles might remember the actual dimensions or perhaps for this and a few other questions, Giles might even make contact with Raphael Hythloday. Laughably, there is one major question that does need to be addressed rather urgently: More does not remember "in what part of that New World Utopia is located." The author confides that he is rather embarrassed "not to know in which ocean the island lies," especially since he has devoted so much time and energy to recounting less significant details.
There are a few individuals already prepared to go to Utopia including a theologian who would like to see the island and meet its inhabitants. He intends to ask the Pope to be made the Bishop of the Utopians. More concludes his letter expressing his hesitation to publish the work. Despite the good qualities of the work, Utopia will still be exposed to the unnecessarily fierce commentary of critics. More wonders whether it will be worthwhile in the end.
Throughout Utopia, More alludes to the scholarly and traditional literature of his period, also referencing earlier Greek and Latin works. Almost immediately, Utopia presents itself as a book whose form is different form other works. The full title of the work attests to this: "On the best form of a Commonwealth and on the New Island of Utopia: a Truly Precious Book No Less Profitable than Delightful by the most Distinguished and Learned Gentleman Thomas More, Citizen and Undersheriff of the Illustrious City of London." This book includes several things: it presents philosophy as well as a travel narrative about a foreign place. It poses as history but it is also a fictional adventure-story. Finally, parts of Utopia read much like a parable, aiming to improve the reader with a moral education by giving examples illustrated in stories.
Just as Utopia is a complex of genres, the Introduction is a "pastiche" (collage) of different literary forms including the poem, the pictogram and the epistle. Each of these serves a distinct narrative purpose.
The first poem is a six line stanza by Utopia's poet laureate. This poem creates a pun on the word Utopia as opposed to eutopia. Utopia actually means no-place, a fantasy. Eutopia means good place. The poem describes Utopia as a eutopia and compares it to "Plato's state." In one sense, Utopia is also a response to Plato's work, The Republic. More presents his political philosophy, albeit in a very abstracted way.
A quatrain written about Utopus (the general who founded the eponymous state) follows the sextet. Neither poem bears any significant resemblance to the established lyrical forms of More's society. Indeed, the poem is translated into prose. The poem tells us that utopia was made into an island by the general, Utopus. It has subsequently become a "philosophical state." Certainly, the image of the island parallels More's Britain. Unlike its neighbors on the continental mainland, the island is militarily secure enough to forge its own identity and isolated enough to become a unique philosophical state. Moreover, the security of the island makes it safe for the citizens to traffic in commerce as participate in the trade and exchange of ideas. According to the poem, Utopia eagerly shares its ideas and adopts the best practices of other societies.
More's letter to Peter Giles combines actual people with fictional characters. This is what we would expect, considering the mix of fictional and non-fictional genres incorporated within the work. More has made himself into a character. Peter Giles is an actual friend of More's and Giles assists in the publication of Utopia. Neither More nor Giles had a friend named Raphael Hythloday. The New World remains, in 1516, largely unexplored by Europeans, but there was no "Utopia" nor had More traveled to any distant lands.
In the letter (the "epistle") to Giles, More is actually writing to the reader indirectly. Details which Giles would already know are supplied to give the reader context. This is a form of apostrophe because the speaker is addressing his intended audience indirectly. The themes of truth and virtue are very important in Utopia. Narrative accuracy certainly involves issues of truth, but the definition of truth depends upon what sort of narrative is being written: in the same way that we can judge the philosophy of the Utopians as true or false, we can judge the philosophy of Utopia as true or false. If Utopia as a travelogue, we would look to see whether its descriptions were true (i.e., accurate). On the other hand, as a work of history, Utopia would be true if it were "objective." And if we are reading Utopia as a fictional work, an adventure story or fantasy, "truth" is more a matter of consistency and believability: Do the characters sound like themselves? Is that how Utopians would really act?
The idea of public service is another major theme of this work. More is the under-sheriff of London and he serves in several other roles before he dies. Giles is a clerk for the city of Antwerp. Raphael Hythloday presents ideas regarding the individual's obligations to society. To the extent that Utopia was written to enhance the public debate on the "ideal" state, the book is an act of public service.
Finally, the idea of travel to the "New World" is an obvious theme of Utopia. We cannot travel to Utopia because it does not exist and furthermore, it is far away and the passage is dangerous. The next best thing is to receive an account of the New World from Hythloday and this is what More faithfully presents to us. There were plenty of travelogues and "accounts of the Indies"mostly spuriouson the market during More's era. Utopia borrows the idea of the New World, but More does not argue that Utopia is actually a location somewhere in the actual New World.