“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.”
Humpty Dumpty has become so popular a nursery figure and is pictured so frequently that few people today think of the verse as containing a riddle. The reason the king’s men couldn’t put him together again is known to everyone.
It’s more than probable that Humpty was a parody of someone in public office who fell out of favor, and thus was beyond redemption. We have all seen a few of that sort. But how did he become an egg?
We have John Tenneil to blame for our perception of Humpty. He was an artist and political cartoonist in the latter part of the 19th century, who contributed to Punch magazine for over 50 years. He was also famous for illustrating Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through The Looking Glass”, both of which are so famous I think it’s safe to say that Tenneil’s vision of an egg sitting on a wall tickled our sense of the ridiculous.
‘It’s very provoking to be called an egg–very’ as Humpty admits in “Through The Looking Glass”, but such common knowledge cannot be gainsaid.
What is not so certain is for how long the riddle has been known. It does not appear in early riddle books, but this may be because it was already so well-known. Students of linguistics believe that it is one of those pieces the antiquity of which is to be measured in thousands of years, or rather that it is so great that it cannot be measured at all.
The Humpty Dumpty of England is known as Boule-Boule in France, Thille Lille in Sweden, Lille-Trille in Denmark, and so on throughout the different parts of Europe. All double-rhyming words, easy and fun for children to sing. The word Humpty Dumpty is given in the Oxford English Dictionary for a boiled ale-and-brandy drink from the end of the seventeenth century.
The earliest reference to Humpty Dumpty as a squat, comical little person appears in the caption to an engraving with the title ‘A Lilliputian Prize Fighting’ published sometime between 1754 and 1764. Part of the caption reads:
Sir Humpty Dumpty fierce as a Turk,
At Captain Doodle runs his fork.
There is an old girl’s game called ‘Humpty Dumpty’ described by some American writers in 1848. The players sit down holding their skirts tight around their ankles. At an agreed signal they all fall backwards and try to recover their balance without letting go of their skirts.
Robert L. Ripley ‘Believe It Or Not’, stated that the original Humpty was Richard 111, while Professor David Daube, in one of a series of spoof nursery-rhyme histories for The Oxford Magazine” 1956, put forward the ingenious idea that Humpty Dumpty was a siege machine in the Civil War!
History aside, the beloved egg-shaped Humpty Dumpty sits precariously forever on the wall, waiting to be be pushed off in historical probability.