the classical liberal arts of grammar,logic & rhetoric
Edited by John Martineau
Wooden Books, 2016
ISBN 978 1 907155 18 5
John Martineau has developed Wooden Books, based in Glastonbury, as a collection of beautifully crafted pocket-sized oracles, which he describes as “a mathemagical ancient wisdom series”. Each book promises knowledge hidden, forgotten or downright arcane, in modular form (no chapter runs to more than two pages). Production values are high: Trivium, like all the other titles in Martineau’s catalogue, cries out to be picked up.
Enlightenment and entertainment are cunningly intertwined.
The trivium is the trio of liberal arts that, in medieval universities, comprise the humanities: grammar, logic and rhetoric. (Wooden Books has also produced a companion volume, Quadrivium, covering the four ‘scientific’ arts: maths, geometry, music and astronomy.) The subjects are ‘liberal’ because they liberate the student into citizenship: without them, we cannot participate fully in civil society. (Tell that to the vice-chancellors of our universities...)
Trivium will give you a pleasurable smattering of each art, with some amusing add-ons to keep you turning the pages.
This is actually a compendium of six short books by different authors – with three appendices by yet more; as a result, each section treats its subject slightly differently.
Turn to Andrew Aberdein's and Adina Arvatu's section on rhetoric – and there’s no need to read Trivium end-to-end – and you’ll find a decent enough introduction to its classical roots (but nothing about later rhetorical theory). There are gaps, even in such a brief overview: although it describes the five canons, it barely mentions topics of invention and deals not at all with the skills of delivery. You’ll find a few intriguing pages in the appendices on proverbs and the art of memory, but no fewer than 37 of the section’s 52 pages are given over, perhaps inevitably, to figures of speech.
Rachel Holley does a much better job with grammar. It would be hard to imagine a more cogent account.If you're looking for a straightforward guide to the basics, you won't go far wrong. (Though at one point, at least, Ms Holley does go wrong - very slightly.)
At the other end of the scale, Earl Fontainelle promises much with logic and actually over-delivers: some aspects of the subject are introduced without being explained.
These core sections are framed with material reflecting the development of the humanities in the Renaissance. Octavia Wynne takes us on a wonderful journey through poetics: you need never worry again about distinguishing an anapest from a villanelle. As with every section, the quotations are wide-ranging and rich. The final book in the collection, by Gregory Beabout and Mike Hannis, offers the most through-written account of its subject, ethics.
Trivium opens with a marvellously batty “poet’s dictionary of enchantments” by John Michell, whose esotericism places him at the very heart of Wooden Books’ ethos (some of us fondly remember his book, The View over Atlantis, and his musings on ley lines...) Michell sees each letter as embodying some kind of natural meaning; “in some cases,” he suggests, “even the shapes of letters ... seem to accord with the sounds they denote.” With a nod to Plato’s Cratylus and some splendid cartoons, his dictionary opens the ear to the infinite possibilities of euphonics.
Trivium, then, is a book to dip into for inspiration and delight, though at a fairly hefty price. Put it in the bathroom (other small rooms are available).