Curious Origins of Nursery Rhymes: Humpty Dumpty

The curious tragedy of the clumsy anthropomorphic egg first appeared in Samuel Arnold’s ‘Juvenile Amusements’ in 1797. Perhaps previously a playground riddle for children, the nursery rhyme has become a popular addition to the canon with many alleged meanings. Over the course of its history, Humpty Dumpty has gone from a simple childish riddle to a popular nursery rhyme and an immortalised character in Lewis Carroll’s classic, Through the Looking Glass.

The simplest explanation for the rhyme is that it is a child’s riddle where the answer is an egg.

The earliest version had slightly different lyrics that has become modified over time:

‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.

Four-score Men and Four-score more,

Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before…’ (1797)

Another Version of the Rhyme from the late 18th century calls upon forty Doctors who couldn’t fix Humpty Dumpty:

Humpty-Dumpty lay in a beck

With all his sinews around his neck ;

Forty doctors and forty wights

Couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty to rights…’ (1842)

One could see that for even the best specialist in the world, a Dumpty lying on his ‘beck’ with sinews around his neck is bound to be a diagnostic and therapeutic challenge – a chiropractor maybe the best bet.

The riddle also proves universal in many European cultures and languages….

Lille Trille

Lille Trille

satt på hylle.

Lille Trille

ramlet ned.

Ingen mann i dette land

Lille Trille bøte kan.

Hiimpelken-Pumpelken

Hiimpelken-Pumpelken sat up de Bank,

Hiimpelken-Pumpelken fel von de Bank

Do is ken Docter in Engelland

De Hiimpelken-Purapelken kurere kann.

Boule, boule

Boule, boule su 1’keyere,

Boule, bonle par terre.

Y n’a nuz homme en Angleterre

Pou 1’erfaire.

The enduring nature of the rhyme comes from mankind’s enduring relationship with the humble egg itself.

The Egg has fascinated philosophers who have pondered on its mythical messages.

The origins of the Cosmic Egg was described by Aristophanes in his play:

It was Chaos and Night at the first, and the blackness of darkness, and hell’s broad border; Earth was not, nor air, neither heaven; when in depths of the womb of the dark without order. First thing first born of the black-plumed Night was a wind-egg hatched in her bosom, Whence timely, with season revolving again, sweet Love burst out as a blossom, Gold wings glittering forth of his back, like whirlwinds gustily turning. He, after his wedlock with Chaos, whose wings are of darkness in hell broad-burning, For his nestings begat him a race of birds first and upraised us to light new-lighted.

According to the Finnish Epic Kalevala the world-egg fell and broke. Its upper part became the vault of heaven, its lower part the earth. The yolk formed the sun, the white the moon, and the

fragments of the shell became the stars in heaven.

In Tibetan Buddhism, the holy one is depicted as holding in his hand a broken eggshell representing the earth onto which a diminutive human is often shown sitting.

In Some parts of Europe the riddle of egg describes it as a ‘cask containing two types of beer’.

In Anglo-Saxon myths, The God Wodan ( likened to Norse Odin) comes in the form of a wayfarer and poses a riddle to Kind Heidrek:

Blond – haired brides, bondswomen both,

carried ale to the barn ; the casks were not turned

with hands nor forged by hammers ; she that

made it strutted about outside the isle.

The Answer to the riddle is ‘ Duck Eggs’.

Strangely enough, Humpty Dumpty was an old English name for a drink made of boiling brandy with ale. Must have been a heady concoction that made men wobbly and fall over like Humpty Dumpty.

There was some speculation by historians that the rhyme Humpty Dumpty referred to Richard III of England who was popularised by the Shakespearean play. As Richard is depicted as humpbacked and brittle, he was likened to an egg. His subsequent defeat in Bosworth field despite his large army ( all the King’s men and all the King’s horses) made some believe that the rhyme originated from this historical occurrence.

As the term Humpback doesn’t date back Richard III’s time in reign, this is perhaps a fanciful speculation.

In sixteen hundred and forty-eight

When England suffered the pains of state

The Roundheads laid siege to Colchester town

Where the king’s men still fought for the crown.

There One-Eyed Thompson stood on the wall

A gunner of deadliest aim of al.

From St Mary’s Tower his cannon he fired,

Humpty Dumpty was its name.

Humpty Dumpty sat on the wall,

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;

All the king’s horses and all the king’s men

Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

From ‘ Pop goes the Weasel- The Secret Origins of Nursery rhymes’ by Albert Jack

Military historians have speculated that ‘Humpty Dumpty’ rhyme may refer to a ‘tortoise’ siege engine used during the English civil war to breach the walls of Gloucester in 1643. Originally proposed in the Oxford magazine by a Professor David Daube and widely believed at the time of publication in 1956, this theory was later derided as a fanciful myth.

In another version of the story, the city of Colchester, England, sought to own the Humpty Dumpty myth as its own. The Colchester tourist board published on their website that during the English civil war, the Royalists of the walled city placed a large cannon ( known by the local folk as Humpty Dumpty) on one of the church walls as a defence against the Parliamentarians.The rebels fired a cannonball right underneath the wall that brought ‘Humpty Dumpty’ tumbling down. ‘All the King’s men and their horses’ – the Cavaliers defending the city – attempted to put the cannon back together and raise it onto another wall but failed in their enterprise.

This theory was put forward by Albert Jack in his book, ‘ Pop goes the Weasel- the secret origins of nursery rhymes‘. Jack also goes onto propose that there are two other verses that precede the rhyme that seek to confirm his tale. He attributes Lewis Carrol for propagating the ‘egg’ riddle.

There are two problems with his rather clever version – one he says he found the rhyme in a 17th century book but there is no evidence that this book exists. Two, the version of the rhyme he gives is not written in the style of a 17th century verse.The words used are modern and are not linguistically contemporaneous of that era.

As we now know the earliest printed versions of the Humpty Dumpty rhyme ( see above) do not mention all the Kings men or horses but instead ‘ four score men and four score more’ or ‘ Forty Doctors and forty wights’.

It is likely that this is a more elaborate but plausible speculation rather than the truth, as the rhyme did originate as a child’s riddle predating Lewis Carroll by more than a century.

Albert Jack is a best selling writer who has published many best sellers that are entertaining reads on origins of words, phrases, pub names and nursery rhymes etc. I do like his ‘Red Herrings and white elephants’ book that discourses on the origins of idioms and phrases.

Certain Neurologists believe that Humpty Dumpty in Carroll’s novel suffered from a real life medical condition called prosopagnosia – an inability to remember faces ( face-blindness). This speculation stems from the following exchange between Humpty and Alice.

‘I shouldn’t know you again if we did meet,’ Humpty Dumpty replied in a discontented tone, giving her one of his fingers to shake: ‘you’re so exactly like other people.’

‘The face is what one goes by, generally,’ Alice remarked in a thoughtful tone.

‘That’s just what I complain of,’ said Humpty Dumpty. ‘Your face is the same as everybody has — the two eyes, so —’ (marking their places in the air with his thumb) ‘nose in the middle, mouth under. It’s always the same. Now if you had the two eyes on the same side of the nose, for instance — or the mouth at the top — that would be somehelp.’

‘It wouldn’t look nice,’ Alice objected. But Humpty Dumpty only shut his eyes, and said ‘Wait till you’ve tried.’

— ‘Through the Looking glass’ by Lewis Carroll.

So popular was the rhyme that Lewis Carroll decided to include the character Humpty Dumpty in his classic ‘Through the Looking Glass’. Alice encounters Humpty sitting on a very narrow wall and ponders his fate from the rhyme. Humpty however, proves to be an argumentative sort, although he does help Alice unravel the mysteries of ‘Jabberwocky’.

He tells her the meanings of the words in the poem like ‘brillig’ and ‘slithy’, ‘ mimsy’ and ‘borogoves’. He is quite the linguist as he explains the nature of ‘portmanteau’ words to Alice- words that are made from the combination of other two- like ‘slithy’ from ‘lithe’ and ‘slimy’.

While Alice is quite concerned for Humpty’s fate, he is confident as he has been reassured by the white King that he would send all his men and horses to pick Humpty up, should he fall. A misplaced confidence, as we now know what happened!

Humpty Dumpty was popularised by American comedic actor George L Fox in pantomime performances during the 19th century. This pantomime of two acts was considered by many as one of the best American panto performances.

Humpty Dumpty has also appeared as a character in various genre stories including Neil Gaiman’s ‘ The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds’ and in Jasper Fforde’s literary fantasy thrillers ‘ The Big Over Easy’ and ‘ The Well of Lost plots’.

The character also appeared as the antagonist in the Dreamworks animation ‘Puss in Boots’. He is voiced by Zach Galifianakis.