Most printer’s errors are just old-timey typos. But as we’ve all learned with autocorrect, sometimes those errors can hijack a conversation in hilarious or painful ways. Here are some printer’s errors that completely changed the meanings of classic books.
The Leda Bible, 1568
Let’s go back to the Greek mythological tale of Leda and the Swan. Leda was the soon-to-be mother of Helen of Troy, and she was desirable enough that Zeus tried to seduce her (“seduce” and “rape” meant the exact same thing to the ruler of Olympus). Instead of appearing on Leda’s doorstep and showering her with compliments and Applebee’s gift cards like a real man, Zeus waited until Leda took her daily nude stroll through the forest and then transformed himself into a swan. He pretended to be running from an eagle, then made a lusty bee-line straight for her crotch. What else could Leda do? If someone’s being chased, a lady should try to hide at least some of that person in her vagina.
The line between rescuing a woodland creature and humping a woodland creature was apparently blurry for Leda. She gave birth to twins as a result of this aviary indiscretion, and one of those freaky swan spawn was Helen of Troy.
The 1568 Bishop’s Bible is known informally as the “Leda Bible” because of the decorative initial that opens Saint Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews. Rather than an appropriately Christian ornament like a cross, or a dove, the printer elected to affix Leda taking up one-twelfth of the page to fornicate with a water fowl. On a Pauline letter, no less! Saint Paul may have been the most anti-humping apostle in the whole New Testament, which he very clearly proved in I Corinthians 7: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” To be fair, he said nothing about “touching” geese.
Leda’s impropriety immediately changed the spirit of the book. Opening with a Greek heroine engaged in bestial hedonism really undercuts the more sanctimonious tone of the sermon. Especially when you consider where it was occurring – in the letter G, the first letter of the word GOD. It’s not a rule that’s been written anywhere or passed by legislators, but people shouldn’t be humping birds while inside God.
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, 1884
The scandals surrounding Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn began before the book was even published. This landmark of literature had everything a reader could ever want – adventure, humor, controversy, tenderness, the hypocrisy of competing social class structures, and a penis. Yes, that’s right, a criminal act of exposure involving a minor, and peddled door-to-door during the 1884 Christmas season.
One of the 50 pressmen working on the book couldn’t pass up the opportunity to vandalize an illustration. The man in the picture, standing there proving that if you don’t want a penis drawn on you, don’t stand like you want a penis drawn on you, is Uncle Silas. Originally, this illustration was supposed to depict Huck disguising himself as Silas’ nephew. Uncle Silas juts backwards in dramatic confusion while Aunt Sally hovers nearby as if she suspects what’s really going on. With a few scratches into a printing plate, however, the scene lands Huck squarely in To Catch A Predator territory. Now fully phallused and erect, Uncle Silas is suddenly committing an act of child sexual assault, and Sally appears to have arranged the twisted encounter.
What Uncle Silas is sporting barely counts as a Vienna sausage. You see, in order to pass casual inspection, the penile vandal had to make Silas’s peen no bigger than a mealworm. The desire to slip this obscenity past the censors must also account for why Silas’s manhood starts a third of the way down his thigh. Anatomically speaking, Uncle Silas was a mess. To this day, rare book dealers always note the position of Uncle Silas’s fly in their descriptions of the first-edition copies of Huckleberry Finn.
Richard II, 1623
In Shakespeare’s grand historical drama Richard II, the titular king is a jerk. Richard is vindictive, shady, indecisive, corrupt, and totally unfit to rule a country. At one point during the play, Sir Stephen Scroop approaches King Jerk von Clownstick to inform him of how deeply the English rebellion runs. “White beares have armed their thin and hairless scalps against thy majestie.”
Wait. White bears? Was the English monarch so thoroughly despised that even the wild animals were taking up arms against him? According to Shakespeare, polar bears from the Arctic felt so personally threatened that they marched their frozen furry selves down to London to beat him up.
This explanation is plausible, but a few nagging questions remain. Why do the polar bears have “thin and hairless scalps”? And why are they “arming” themselves? Bears have claws. Huge intestine-extracting claws. At seven feet tall and 900 pounds, polar bears are living, breathing weapons of mass destruction. How did they organize? Can they hold town hall meetings?
Some printing context may shed a little light on these questions. Compositors used cases to hold individual letters, numbers, and punctuation while setting type. Not unlike using a keyboard today, compositors set their type without staring directly at their hands. If the E’s and D’s were sitting close enough (also like today), one letter could be “picked” by mistake. The whole Shakespearean white bears conundrum was probably nothing more than a typo. After all, if you change “beares” to “beards,” you get: “White beards have armed their thin and hairless scalps against thy majestie,” and that makes a whole lot more sense. Small printing errors can have far-reaching effects. In Shakespeare’s case, they changed a septuagenarian revolt against Richard II into an awesome but thoroughly nonsensical ursine one.
William Blake was an 18th-century English poet, painter, and printer who developed a magnificent technique of relief etching used for book illustrations. He learned this technique from the ghost of his dead brother, Robert, so already we’re off to a good start. Blake was crazy. He was also an amazing artist. These are by no means mutually exclusive. Consider The Second Circle of Hell (“The Circle of the Lustful”). It is at once beautiful and haunting and terrifying and resonant and completely, gloriously nuts. Blake was diagnosed by close friend and journalist Henry Robinson as suffering from “monomania.” Haven’t heard of monomania? Then you aren’t from the 19th century, when it was a quasi-psychiatric term for someone who was almost normal except for one (mono) “pathological preoccupation.”
“I can look at a knot of wood until I am frightened at it.”
“I was Socrates.”
“I have an obscure recollection of having been with Jesus Christ.”
“For many years I longed to see Satan.”
These are all things that demonstrated dear Mr. Blake’s pathological preoccupation. Did he talk to the dead? Yes! Was he constantly haunted by terrifying monsters and demons? Yep! Was one of his poems dictated to him by a fairy living inside his parlor? You better believe it! William Blake’s mind is what happens when Poltergeist, Rosemary’s Baby, and Pan’s Labyrinth have a no-holds-barred three-way in the Overlook Hotel.
Consider this contemporary review of Blake’s illustration for the 1796 edition of Leonora: “Blake draws men and women without skins, with their joints all dislocated … imaginary beings which neither can nor ought to exist.”
Leonora was a popular German poem about a young woman (Leonora) whose fiancé (William) runs off to the Seven Years’ War. Leonora is distraught when he goes missing, and blames God. Death disguises himself as William, shows up at Leonora’s door, and then drags the 16-year-old to hell for blasphemy.
Leonora is a terrifically macabre story, so of course it was immensely popular in 18th-century Europe. You can almost see the Disney movie in the making. Those doe-ish eyes, that perfect hair, the supple bosom, the tiny waist. It’s physically impossible to ride a horse the way she’s sitting, but Leonora is in love! And is that a nude ankle we see? Now that’s how you ride a horse when Death is galloping you straight to Hell. You hold on for your freaking life and pray the naked mosh pit below doesn’t get its depraved claws on you. Blake’s Leonora is appropriately scared and has no time for bouncy boobs or ankle flashing.
Blake’s illustration changed the focus of Leonora from “jaunty ride through the countryside” to “good gawd, demon voyeurs are tearing open the sky!” And this was not a change that readers in 1796 appreciated. Was it a printer’s error to have Blake illustrate a German children’s poem? Personally, we say, “Of course not! And you’re an uncultured ignoramus for questioning it.” But considering that Blake was blacklisted after Leonora and never illustrated another book that wasn’t commissioned by himself or a close friend, well, we’ll say the real error was getting a mentally ill, Satan-obsessed artist to illustrate a children’s story.