What's your ideal world? Everyone has their own concept of Utopia.
Far in the sea, to the west of Spain,
Is a country called Cokaygne.
There's no land not anywhere,
In goods or riches to compare.
Though Paradise be merry and bright
Cokaygne is of far fairer sight....
The Land of Cokaygne, c. 1315
You may never have heard of this medieval poem, nor the country of Cokaygne. Neither had I, until I began to research Utopia. A concept that has inspired writers for centuries, Utopia is defined as “an imaginary, ideal place where everything is perfect.” Yet the word Utopia is derived from Greek words meaning “no place,” because from a practical point of view a Utopian world or society is a difficult, if not impossible achievement.
For the fantasy writer Utopia is manna, offering unlimited storylines and plots, incredible characters and personalities, vivid detail and description and a place where the only limits are your own imagination. While Utopia can be applied to religion, politics, economics and science, in this newsletter we are purely concerned with literary Utopia. Many stories featuring Utopian places have been told from the view of a third party – a time traveller or a foreigner – who will be shown the different features of “the perfect world” so the details and description can be conveyed to the reader.
In 1518 St Thomas More wrote a book called “Utopia”. Based on the Greek writer Plato’s “Republic”, More created Raphael Hythlodaeus, a Portugese explorer who discovers the perfect society in a placed called Utopia. Hythlodaeus spends five years in Utopia described as an island south of the equator where urban residents live in 54 cities positioned at least 24 miles apart from each other. Every year three men from each city meet in the capital to deliberate on current issues. The rural Utopians live in farm houses, with no less that 40 people in each house. Every year 20 people are chosen from 30 farms to move to the cities, with the same number of urban citizens moving to the country. Agriculture is an important science, with schoolchildren studying its history and theory. In addition to agriculture every person learns a trade, and the Utopian knowledge of music, mathematics, meteorology, astronomy and geometry is as good as – if not superior – to that of other countries. Utopians work a six hour day, earning enough to ensure they have a comfortable life. This ensures no time is wasted on buying and using unnecessary luxuries. A group of 30 farm houses is represented by a “philarch”, and ten philarchs and their families are the responsibility of a chief philarch. Utopian democracy states that the citizens nominate four candidates, one of whom is chosen as Prince for life by the philarchs.
Sounds perfect? Perhaps, but looks can be deceptive. Read on…
Family units in the city have the use of dining halls when they don’t feel like eating at home. While female Utopians attend to the preparation of the meals, the service in these dining-rooms is done by slaves. In the rural farmhouse there are two slaves assigned to each farmhouse. Utopians who have committed a heinous crime are condemned to slavery as punishment. Persons sentenced to death in the neighbouring states may also be procured as slaves by the Utopians. Fortunately a slave’s offspring do not inherit their parents’ miserable status.
Utopians maintain sufficient agricultural supplies for two years; any surplus is traded with neighbouring countries, securing products like gold, silver and iron. Since Utopia has common property ownership currency is unnecessary, but the metals are used to hire mercenaries to fight anyone attempting to destroy the perfect world. The rational behind this rather ‘un-Utopian-like behaviour was that the more volatile members of those imperfect societies would probably be killed, leaving behind the more peaceful citizens to gradually embrace Utopian ideals.
Utopia recognised almost all forms of religion, with public worship being general enough so as to unite all different religions. The exception to this rule is Atheism. In a perfect world where the only laws are those necessary for the benefit of the citizens, a respect for and belief in a higher power is considered an adequate replacement for man-made laws.
Utopians suffering from a painful or incurable disease are encouraged to take their own lives – for the good of the community. Those that do not wish to commit suicide are not forced to comply with this “request”. Whilst Utopians who take their lives without the leaders’ consent are give a dishonourable burial, those who follow their leaders’ advice and meet death with courage and good cheer are cremated as a mark of honour.
Utopian women may not marry before the age of 18 years – for men the age of consent is 22. A lot of effort is made to ensure the marital partners are fully acquainted with one another, because divorce is not indicative of a perfect world. Having said that, divorce is rare and permitted for just one reason only, and only the innocent party may remarry.
The reason I chose Thomas More’s book is that there’s so much detail about the fantasy place called Utopia. The variations on the concept of the perfect world/society are endless. For if Utopia is indeed a perfect place why do slaves exist? Hiring mercenaries seems to cancel out the ideal of eternal peace, and the fact that Atheism is not tolerated indicates a form of discrimination – surely anathema in a perfect world? Pain? Disease? Advising people to commit suicide rather than offering assistance and comfort might mean mankind has lost all compassion.
Yet there are positives. The idea of a world where everyone is educated, tolerant, considerate and kind… where situations like poverty, cruelty, disease, misery and war do not exist…where pollution of the environment and extinction of different plant and animal species are stories confined to history books … I think most people cherish their own dreams of Utopia. It’s a perfect setting for a Fantasy story, because a writer creates his or her own world, makes the rules and sets up a system of leadership to ensure Utopiathrives – and survives. Here are a few examples of some famous literary “Utopian” worlds:
Atlantis – a mythical kingdom that has been a great source for Utopian worlds, Atlantis was described by Plato as a very evolved, advanced civilisation.
Shangri-La – synonymous with Far Eastern culture, Shangri-la was depicted in James Hilton’s “Lost Horizon” as a mystical, peaceful and harmonious place completely in tune with nature.
The Fountain of Youth – a place reputed to restore youth to anyone who drinks its waters. Some writers believe the fountain to be a variation on Genesis’ “Tree of Life”, which produces fruit that, if consumed, offers immortality.
Neverland – the home of J M Barrie’s “Peter Pan”, an island where children do not age. The promise of eternal childhood, immortality and escapism – a place where the most innocent period of life lasts forever.
Xanadu – the reputed grandeur and splendour of Xanadu was immortalised in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”, and the name is today synonymous with luxury and opulence:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round
Cokagyne – in this version of Utopia the place featured at the beginning of this newsletter was a celebration of paradise, idleness and gluttony. Cokagyne offered a medieval peasant the dream of a life free of harsh labour and desperate scrounging for food. The same poem tells of roads paved with pastry, houses built of barley sugar and cakes and shops where every item on offer was free, while references in the New York Public Library offer even more information:
… roasted pigs wander about with knives in their backs to make carving easy, where grilled geese fly directly into one's mouth, where cooked fish jump out of the water and land at one's feet. The weather is always mild, the wine flows freely, free love is readily available, and all people enjoy eternal youth.
All my writing is about the recognition that there is no single reality. But the beauty of it is that you nevertheless go on, walking towards utopia, which may not exist, on a bridge which might end before you reach the other side.
Marguerite Young, US Author.