Arthur Koestler's three novels The Gladiators (1939), Darkness at Noon (1940), and Arrival and Departure (1943) are said to form a trilogy. The first is set during the Spartacus slave rebellion in 73 BC, the second in the Soviet Union during the 1930s, and the third (as far as I can tell, information about this one isn't so readily available online) in western Europe during the 1940s.

Wikipedia says that all of them "address idealism going wrong", but that seems more like a general theme than something making three unrelated stories into a single series. As far as I can tell, the three novels have different characters, settings, and plotlines.

What makes them a trilogy? Did the author intend them as such (after all, he must have written all of them in relatively quick succession), or were they deemed to be a trilogy by critics later?

  • Why german-language? All three books were originally published in English. The German translations were based on the English versions.
    – verbose
    Commented Feb 25, 2023 at 9:44
  • @verbose Hmm, interesting. We use language tags for the "original" language of a piece of literature, but does that mean the language it was first written in or first published in? I'm not sure if this has ever come up on Lit.SE before!
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Feb 25, 2023 at 15:52
  • @Randal'Thor I would go with the language in which a book was first published, i.e. the language in which it is exposed to readers, unless the question is explicitly about the differences between that version and a manuscript in a different language.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Jul 4 at 12:32

2 Answers 2


The three novels are obviously not connected at the level of the plot or the story. Instead, the novels are linked by a common theme, which has been summarised as "the nature and ethics of revolution" (Kerbel, p. 546). For this reason, they have also been referred to as the "ethical trilogy" (see e.g. Ward), a term that Koestler introduced in his autobiographical work The Invisible Writing. At the very end of chapter XXIV, "Excursion into the First Century B.C.", Koestler writes (Koestler, page 327, emphasis mine),

The Gladiators is the first novel in a trilogy concerned with the ethics of revolution, the problem of Ends and Means. In the second, Darkness at Noon, the problem is restated in a contemporary setting; in the third, Arrival and Departure, it is shifted to the psychological level.

In The Routledge Encyclopedia of Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century (edited b Kerbel) Geoff Sadler writes,

In these novels Koestler examines the early idealism that gives rise to revolutions, and contrasts it with the later corruption and subversion of those ideals.

In Stranger to the Square (published posthumously in 1984) Koestler himself also commented on this (quoted in The Gladiators vs. Spartacus, Volume 1 by Henry MacAdam & Duncan Cooper, 2020, page 348):

Arrival and Departure was the third volume of a trilogy of which the central theme is the conflict between morality and expediency—whether, or to what extent, a noble end justified ignoble means. It is a hoary problem which obsessed me during the years spent as a member of the Communist Party.

Most readers think of a trilogy as a sequence of books that involve the same characters or setting, but this needn't be the case. For example, the Sachwörterbuch de Literatur (page 849) by Gero von Wilpert points out that,

Seltener und erst in neurer Zeit üblich wird die T[rilogie] in der Epik, bes[onders] im Roman; auch hier sind alle Stufen des Zusammenhangs von der lockeren themat[ischen] Verknüpfung (Typ: Raabes sog[enannte] Stuttgarter Triolgie: Hungerpastor, Abu Telfan, Schudderump) bis zur einheitl[ichen] Durchgestaltung (Typ: Kolbenheyers Paracelsus-T[rilogie]) vertreten, (…).


In narrative fiction, especially the novel, the trilogy is rarer and has only become common in recent times; here, too, all levels of connection are represented, from loose thematic linking (type: Raabe's so-called Stuttgart trilogy: Hungerpastor, Abu Telfan, Schüdderump) to unified elaboration (type: Kolbenheyer's Paracelsus trilogy), (…).


  • Kerbel, Sorrel (editor): The Routledge Encyclopedia of Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century. Routledge, 2004. (Entry on Koestler by Geoff Sadler.)
  • Koestler, Arthur: The Invisible Writing: The Second Volume of an Autobiography: 1932–40. London: Vintage, 2019.
  • MacAdam, Henry; Cooper, Duncan: The Gladiators vs. Spartacus, Volume 1. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2020.
  • von Wilpert, Gero: Sachwörterbuch de Literatur. 8th edition. Stutgart: Kröner, 2001.
  • Ward, Michael J.: The development of spirituality and ethics in the work of Arthur Koestler, 1937-1959. Doctoral dissertation, University of Edinburgh, 1997.
  • This is what I guessed, and good to know that Koestler himself referred to the books as a trilogy, but why is a common theme enough to call them a trilogy? Surely other authors have written multiple books on a particular philosophical theme without considering them part of a single series?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 17:20
  • The term trilogy is sufficient loose to include works connected by a common theme: "Other fiction trilogies are connected only by theme: for example, each film of Krzysztof Kieślowski's Three Colours trilogy explores one of the political ideals of the French Republic (liberty, equality, fraternity)." In the case of Koestler and of Kieślowski's film trilogy, authorial intent seems to play a role.
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 17:23

Koestler himself spoke of these three novels as a trilogy. In his autobiography The Invisible Writing, he says:

The Gladiators is the first novel in a trilogy concerned with the ethics of revolution, the problem of Ends and Means. In the second, the problem is restated in a contemporary setting; in the third, Arrival and Departure, it is shifted to the psychological level. Spartacus is a victim of the 'law of detours', which compels the leader on the road to Utopia to be 'ruthless for the sake of pity'. He is 'doomed always to do that which is most repugnant to him, to become a slaughterer in order to abolish slaughtering, to whip people with knouts so that they may learn not to let themselves be whipped, to strip himself of every scruple in the name of a higher scrupulousness, and to challenge the hatred of mankind because of his love for it—an abstract and geometrical love'. But Spartacus shrinks from taking the last step—the purge by crucifixion of the dissident Celts and the establishment of a ruthless tyranny—and through this refusal he dooms his revolution to defeat. In Darkness at Noon the Bolshevik Commissar Rubashov goes the opposite way and follows the 'law of detours' to the end—only to discover that 'reason alone was a defective compass which led one such a winding, twisted course that the goal finally disappeared in the mist'; and that he had become guilty of 'having placed the idea of mankind above the idea of man'. (pp. 267–268)

The quotes within the quote are from The Gladiators and Darkness at Noon.

Koestler links the three novels by saying that all of them are concerned with the paradox that the quest for a just society leads to tyranny. In The Gladiators, set in Roman times, the slave revolution provides the context. Spartacus's refusal to adopt tyranny leads to the revolution's failure. In Darkness at Noon, the successful and idealistic Bolshevik revolution ends in tyranny. And in Arrival and Departure, Koestler tries, through the nervous breakdown of the ex-Communist Peter Slavek, to demonstrate that the desire to establish Utopia through revolution is a neurotic impulse. This common theme of ends and means vis-à-vis political revolution is what makes the three works a trilogy.

Reference: Koestler, Arthur. The Invisible Writing: An Autobiography. 1954. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1955. Retrieved from archive.org February 25, 2023.

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