More than a Children’s Nursery Rhyme
By Adele Kenny
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.
This familiar nursery rhyme has been a perennial favorite for centuries and is a standard in western children’s literature. Humpty’s identification as an egg-like being is not asserted in the rhyme; rather, we come to know him in egg-guise though the works of Lewis Carroll. Carroll’s Alice enters the alternative dimension of Looking Glass/Wonderland and encounters Humpty Dumpty as he sits on the top of a wall. Alice provokes him by comparing him to an egg. The conversation that ensues is, according to Alice, not “at all like conversation.” When Alice expresses concern for his safety, he boasts that the king has promised to send all his horses and men if a fall occurs. Before dismissing Alice, he states that his exploits belong in a history of England. In Carroll’s work, Humpty Dumpty is a relatively unpleasant character, with strong opinions and a sharp tongue, who elicits little sympathy as Alice walks away to the sound of a loud crash.
The nursery rhyme is another story. Traditionally, most nursery rhymes were passed on by word of mouth, and many were not committed to paper until long after they were first told. Nursery rhymes were not originally intended to entertain children. Many of them were created to satirize the nobility. Openly lampooning one’s king or queen would have led to certain imprisonment and possible death. Accordingly, nursery rhymes were written with no reflection upon the nursery or its occupants. Instead, they were a safe way to indict the aristocracy and to provide social and political commentary.
Through ambiguous references, nicknames, and humor, nursery rhymes were cleverly composed and are sometimes interpreted as references to several personalities and events. As Carroll’s Humpty claimed, Humpty Dumpty’s exploits belong in a history of England. During the 1400s, the term Humpty Dumpty was commonly applied to people of large proportion or stature, and the nursery rhyme is sometimes associated with England’s King Richard III.
During Richard’s reign, the Battle of Bosworth took place on August 22, 1485. It was the summary battle in Richard’s fight for the throne against the House of Lancaster’s Henry Tudor. King Richard (Humpty Dumpty) was murdered as he directed his armies from a mounted position at the top of Ambion Hill. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Richard together again. Another suggestion dates the origin of the rhyme to the English Civil War (1642-49) when Humpty Dumpty was the code name for a powerful cannon that was mounted on the wall of St. Mary’s Church in Colchester to defend the city against siege in the summer of 1648. The church tower was hit, the cannon fell to the ground, and the King’s men were unable to put it together again. That king, Charles I (possibly characterized as Humpty Dumpty), was toppled by Parliament’s Puritan majority (a great fall). Charles I’s cavaliers (the King’s army) couldn’t restore him to power before the Roundheads beheaded him.
Another Charles I possibility involves a Dr. Chillingworth who invented war machines and persuaded Charles to try a device that had been used by the Romans. The River Severn had to be crossed in order to breach the city walls of Gloucester, a Roundhead stronghold, and Chillingworth’s machine (called Humpty Dumpty) was a wheeled apparatus designed to roll downhill and gather enough momentum to reach the river’s opposite side. The machine, filled with soldiers needed to complete the attack, was heavier than Chillingworth anticipated and reports by spies enabled the Roundheads to widen the river before the Royalists arrived. When the machine was launched, it sank in midstream (the ultimate Royalist dumpty). Less politically, some have claimed that Humpty Dumpty represented the breakup of the Christian Church in Europe.
Regardless of the nursery rhymes’ origin, Humpty Dumpty has come to be regarded as a benign and fragile character whose tragic fall is summed up as a message to children (and adults as well) that tempting fate can have hazardous results. Humpty has been more abundantly represented, particularly during the 20th century, than most other nursery rhyme characters, and international fascination with him has been metaphorically applied to scholarly studies of literature, history, politics, and art.
Bearing testimony to Humpty’s popularity are numerous landmark items like the Humpty Dumpty balloon float that appeared in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as early as 1926 and the first flipper pinball game, called Humpty Dumpty, that was produced in 1947. More recently, a rare Steiff Humpty Dumpty dating to 1903 was listed at £900, and Humpty Dumpty collectibles are currently a featured category in Internet auctions.
Today’s Humpty Dumpty collectors seek everything from stuffed toys to games, banks, clocks, and ceramic pieces. Prices range from eggs-tra cheap to eggs-orbitant and vary as greatly as the collectibles themselves. As in most areas of collecting, age, condition, and rarity determine values.
Historical origins aside (and Lewis Carroll notwithstanding), Humpty Dumpty is an enduring symbol of childhood that reminds us of the nursery-rhyme days when fantasy was gloriously believable and dangers like falling from walls were the biggest threats of our most immediate realities.