On this date in 1535, Sir Thomas More, English statesman and author, was executed for treason.
More was caught in the middle of religious and governmental conflict when Henry VIII established the Church of England, separating from the Catholic Church. Because More disagreed with the King’s decision, he resigned his office in the English Parliament and refused to take a loyalty oath. As a result, he was imprisoned and eventually beheaded.
The 1966 film A Man for All Seasons portrays the events surrounding More’s execution.
More is best known for his 1516 satirical novel Utopia, in which he envisioned a perfect island state with universal education, common land ownership, religious tolerance, and shared labor (1).
Because of the sharp contrast between the less than perfect island of England and More’s idyllic island of Utopia, the satirical aspect of the novel was clear to 16th century readers. Today utopia and utopian have become a part of the English lexicon, describing any ideal or perfect condition or place. Of course this is an idea that exists purely in the imagination since establishing any perfect society is impossible. More certainly understood this, since he used Greek roots to generate a name for his island that translates literally as “no place,” [ou, not + topos, place].
More is not the first writer to envision an idyllic place in literature. The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions has an entire chapter devoted to these utopias:
Albion: In Arthurian legend, this was the place to which Arthur was conveyed after his death.
Arcadia: An idealized region in classical poetry found in the mountainous district in the Peloponnese of southern Greece.
Avalon: In poetry and literature this name is sometimes used to refer to Britain as a green paradise.
Eden: The garden home of Adam and Eve where the Tree of Knowledge was found.
El Dorado: The fabled city of gold sought in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors.
Shangri-la: A Tibetan utopia depicted in James Hilton’s novel ‘Lost Horizon.’
Valhalla: A great banqueting hall from Norse mythology where heroes, slain in battle, feasted with Odin eternally.
Xanadu: The name of a dreamlike place of beauty and luxury in Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” (2).
Today’s Challenge: Go To Your Happy Place
What is the most idyllic place you have ever been? Describe it so that your reader can experience it vicariously. Try to capture its idyllic nature in both your tone and your imagery. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious, discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. -Helen Keller
1 – Raftery, Miriam. 100 Books That Shaped World History. San Mateo, CA: Bluewood Books, 2002.
2 – Delahunty, Andrew, Sheila Dignen, and Penny Stock (Editors). The Oxford Dictionary of Allusions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.