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Humpty Dumpty Egged On?

Posted by Dan Draney on May 1, 2005

Our recent post about Humpty Dumpty’s successful lawsuit in Omaha, Humpty Dumpty Wins Big, prompted this comment from Steve Donohue:

My question has always been: where is it ever said that humpty dumpty is an egg? It doesn’t say so in the rhyme, but he’s always depicted as such. But I’m happy to hear that, egg or not, he’s doing quite well for himself.

Clearly, this is a fertile area of ovology. Indeed, the actor in the Omaha World Herald photographs is clearly oviform, but where is the support for this notion? Moreover, as Mr. Lyons says, “The question is: Did he fall or was he pushed? And who was behind the Grassy Knoll?” To deal with these questions ab ovo we return to Mother Goose herself:

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.

The illustration in our Mother Goose volume suggests he is ovularian. However, there’s nothing in the original text to suggest any oviod nature to Mr. Dumpty at all.

You may recall that Lewis Carroll’s Alice encountered Mr. Dumpty in her journey Through the Looking Glass. So let’s go ask Alice:

“HOWEVER, the egg only got larger and larger, and more and more human: when she had come within a few yards of it, she saw that it had eyes and a nose and mouth; and, when she had come close to it, she saw clearly that it was HUMPTY DUMPTY himself. `It can’t be anybody else!’ she said to herself. `I’m as certain of it, as if his name were written all over his face!’

It might have been written a hundred times, easily, on that enormous face. Humpty Dumpty was sitting, with his legs crossed like a Turk, on the top of a high wall — such a narrow one that Alice quite wondered how he could keep his balance — and, as his eyes were steadily fixed in the opposite direction, and he didn’t take the least notice of her, she thought he must be a stuffed figure, after all.

`And how exactly like an egg he is!’ she said aloud, standing with her hands ready to catch him, for she was every moment expecting him to fall.

`It’s very provoking,’ Humpty Dumpty said after a long silence, looking away from Alice as he spoke, `to be called an egg — very!’

`I said you looked like an egg, Sir,’ Alice gently explained. `And some eggs are very pretty, you know,’ she added, hoping to turn her remark into a sort of compliment.”

So, according to Alice, Humpty Dumpty looks quite ovularian, but is insulted by allusions to this. It’s not clear what sort of descriptor he would prefer, “ovo-hominid” perhaps?

But can we rely on Alice’s report? The Mother Goose account predates Alice by several hundred years. How can Dumpty have survived all that time? Even if we assume ovo-hominids to have much longer lifespans than humans, there is the issue of his “great fall.” It certainly seems to be a fatal accident from the Goose account.

As it turns out, there are alternate theories which assert that Mr. Dumpty was not even a sentient creature:

Phonological Awareness: “Humpty Dumpty was not an egg at all; nor was he an English king as people frequently believe. Humpty Dumpty was the nickname for a huge wooden battering ram built for the army of King Charles I in the mid-1600s to roll down a slope, across the River Severn, and up against the walls of Gloucester. During England’s Civil War Gloucester was held by Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads. While Charles’ army was busy building the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ the Roundheads were secretly widening the river. Thus Humpty Dumpty was wrecked in midstream, ‘had a great fall’, and toppled into the water, drowning hundreds of soldiers–and there was nothing all the king’s men could do about it.”

Another site and its readers provide some support for this theory, along with several other explanations. The siege engine story was the most popular, but we also get:

Rooney Design: “‘Humpty Dumpty’ was street talk for a short, clumsy person with scrambled brains. Today we’d call Mr. Dumpty a nerd, a dork, a geek, an egghead or something equally unflattering. It’s not easy being oval.

On September 5, 1997, Scott Begg wrote: A good number of years ago, I ran across another interpretation for the Nursery Rhyme ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ and I wonder what is thought of it… ‘Humpty Dumpty’ referred to King Richard III, the hunchbacked monarch. At the Battle of Bosworth Field, he fell from his steed, a horse he had named ‘Wall’ (as dramatically rendered in Shakespeare’s play ‘Richard III:’ ‘A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a Horse!’) Richard was surrounded by enemy troops in the battle, and was butchered right there, his body being hacked to pieces. Hence the final part of the rhyme: ‘All the King’s Horses and All the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again!’

[…]On January 29, 2001, Jerry Bell wrote: May as well put my 2 cents in. Humpty Dumpty was explained to me as the fall of the Roman Empire. Of course I heard this in my Latin class 🙂

[…]On June 27, 2001, Kevin Stryker wrote: Most scholars believe that Humpty Dumpty refers to Richard III and his fall in the last battle of Bosworth. The ‘wall’ Humpty was sitting on though was probably not his horse but a pun, often used in riddles. The ‘wall’ is a play on words with the word meaning ‘welsh’ or ‘foreigner.’ This is the same ‘wal’ that in ‘walnut’ (a welsh or foreign nut) and ‘Cornwallis.’ Richard III was counting on (hence sitting on) Sir William Stanley and other foreigners in the battle but was deserted, and his troops couldn’t protect him from death.

[…]On March 18, 2002, Angela Patanio wrote: I can tell you what Humpty Dumpty really means. It was the fall of King Louis of France right before Napoleon took over.

[…]On April 27, 2004, David Duncan wrote: I think it’s about an alcoholic who everyone is trying to change. But all the King’s horses and all the King’s men refers to his friends and family.”

So we have our pick of non-ovularian explanations. One last site offers this explanation Humpty Dumpty:

“History: From the East Anglia Tourist Board in England:
‘Humpty Dumpty was a powerful cannon during the English Civil War (1642-49). It was mounted on top of the St Mary’s at the Wall Church in Colchester defending the city against siege in the summer of 1648. (Although Colchester was a Parliamentarian stronghold, it had been captured by the Royalists and they held it for 11 weeks.) The church tower was hit by the enemy and the top of the tower was blown off, sending ‘Humpty’ tumbling to the ground. Naturally the King’s men* tried to mend him but in vain.’ * NB: The ‘men’ would have been infantry, and ‘horses’ the cavalry troops.”

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