5

Having recently finished (again) The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I wondered what is the earliest known book / novel trilogy in literature? (Yes, I know J.R.R. Tolkien wrote LOTR not as a trilogy but as the first volume of a planned two-volume work, including LOTR and The Silmarillion but the two volume work was never completed and LOTR now stands on its own in what we refer to as a trilogy.)

According to both Wikipedia and Britannica, trilogy is used to describe

a series of three dramas or literary or musical compositions that, although each is in one sense complete, have a close mutual relation and form one theme or develop aspects of one basic concept.

Britannica's trilogy entry goes on further to say (Wiki mentions this as well, but quoting Britannica here):

The term originally referred specifically to a group of three tragedies written by one author for competition. This trilogy constituted the traditional set of plays presented in Athens by a number of competitors at the 5th-century-BC drama festivals known as the Great Dionysia. One of the first authors to present such a trilogy was Aeschylus, whose Oresteia is the only surviving example from that time.

So we have there an example of what is thought to be the earliest drama / play in trilogy form.

The Wikipedia trilogy entry mentions the epic Mahabharata (attributed to Vyāsa). According to Wiki:

The Mahābhārata is the longest epic poem known and has been described as "the longest poem ever written."

with origins in the 8th or 9th century BCE. That might make it the earliest known trilogy of an epic poem. However, I am having difficulty finding a reference to the earliest known trilogy of books/novels.

Any literature students / professors / historians / enthusiasts (or librarians) out there who may know which trio of books / novels is the earliest known example in literature (and the author)?

EDIT: for the purpose of this question let’s use the Wiki/Britannica definition of trilogy quoted above.

  • 1
    I have voted to close this question as it is entirely dependent on its theoretical terms rather than the documentary record of the past. Additionally it doesn’t pose a historical question in relation to the documentary record of the past; it poses a literary critical question in relation to past texts. As such I have also flagged for migration. It seems a great question which doesn’t belong here. – Samuel Russell Nov 16 '18 at 6:16
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it belongs the n Literature SE. – Spencer Nov 18 '18 at 16:08
  • @SamuelRussell and Spencer - ok, Literature:SE may be better (didn't know there was a Literature:SE). I thought a literary historian may have a ready answer available. I'm not a member of Literature:SE so if this gets migrated there, hopefully someone can keep me informed of its progress. – Kerry L Nov 19 '18 at 15:14
10

The first and foremost example that comes to my mind is the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, written in the early XIV century.

This poem, a work of paramount importance for both Italian and World literature, is famously composed of three books, or cantiche:

  • Inferno

  • Purgatorio

  • Paradiso

4

Wikipedia has a category Literary trilogies. The oldest novels in the list seem to date from central Europe: Henryk Sienkiewicz's Trilogy (1884-1888), Alois Jirásek's Mezi proudy (1891-1909), and Jerzy Żuławski's Lunar Trilogy (1901-1911). I have no idea whether this reflects a bias in Wikipedia contributors or is historically accurate. The oldest listed in English is John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga (1906-21), which was published individually, then together as a trilogy, then later extended with more books. These examples may not correspond to your definition of a trilogy.

  • Thanks Stuart, +1... the category seems a little light though. It’s certainly a good list to start with but I don’t know how complete it is. Glad you found it! – Kerry L Nov 15 '18 at 18:07
4

Note that for novel sequences in general, "There is no useful, formal demarcation between novel sequences and multi-part novels."

4

A famous novel trilogy is Alexandre Dumas' story about D'Artagnan, Porthos, Athos and Aramis:

I won't pretend it is the oldest one, but it may well be the most read trilogy ever.

4

Robert Folkestone Williams wrote a trilogy of novels about William Shakespeare:

1838: The Youth of Shakespeare,
1839: Shakespeare and his Friends,
1844: Secret Passion.

At around the same time, Edgar Allen Poe wrote three short stories with C. Auguste Dupin, an amateur detective, as the main character:

1841: The Murders in the Rue Morgue,
1842: The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,
1844: The Purloined Letter.

These trilogies are both slightly earlier than Alexandre Dumas' Musketeers trilogy.

1

I know of three novels by Jules Verne that might or might not fit the definition of a trilogy.

Les Enfants du Capitaine Grant (The Children of Captain Grant) 1868, three volumes. Involves the search for the missing sea captain Grant.

Vingt Mille Lieues sous les mers (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) 1870. 2 volumes. Captain Nemo and his submarine Nautilus.

L'Ille mysterieuse (The Mysterious Island) 1874. Three volumes. People are stranded on an island on the Pacific Ocean and have adventures. They meet characters from The Children of Captain Grant and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea though the chronologies of the three novels are inconsistent.

These three novels are called a trilogy by this source: https://web.archive.org/web/20060818230948/http://epguides.com/djk/JulesVerne/works.shtml1

It is possible that opinions may vary about whether they should be considered a trilogy.

  • Of Jules Verne's novels, De la Terre à la Lune, Autour de la Lune, and Sans dessus dessous form a tighter trilogy, even though the third story was written twenty years after the second one. English titles are From the Earth to the Moon, Around the Moon, and The Purchase of the North Pole. – b_jonas Nov 24 '18 at 15:43

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.