The famous literary anecdote of the book chapter anyone can recite from memory

Snakes of Iceland

The famous literary anecdote about the book with the chapter anyone can recite from memory (pictured above) is more or less accurate.

Boswell records Johnson quoting it. De Quincey placed "Concerning the Snakes of Iceland" in the wrong book, but did the tightest and most durable rendition of the punchline: "There are no snakes in Iceland."

"The Natural History of Iceland" (London, 1758) is an English translation of Niels Horrebow's "Tilforladelige efterretninger om Island."

In this translation, as you can see, Chap. LXXII reads in entirety: "Concerning snakes. No snakes of any kind are to be met with throughout the whole island."

There is a brief footnote to it: "Mr. Anderson says, it is owing to the excessive cold that no snakes are found in Iceland."

However the original Danish has a full paragraph there. Horrebow's book was a response to an earlier natural history, by Johann Anderson, published in Hamburg in 1746.

Horrebow answered and corrected the earlier book, chapter by categorical chapter, "and hence come these Chapters, though it must be added that they owe their laconic celebrity to the English translator, the author being rather profuse than otherwise in giving his predecessor a flat denial." [G.B. Hill, footnote to "Boswell's Life of Johnson," vol. iii, Clarendon, 1887].

The chapter on owls in the English translation [chap. xlii, p. 61] is almost identical to the one on snakes, and it likewise differs from the original Danish. Johnson and De Quincey left the owls in obscurity.

Perhaps the whole episode suggests some thing ineffably English. You can decide that. Needless to say, neither the German translation ("Zuverlässige Nachrichten von Island," Leipzig: 1753) nor the French ("Nouvelle Description Physique-Historique, Civile Et Politique De L'Islande," 1764) contains a one-sentence chapter.


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