Earth Hour

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Was Humpty Dumpty Really an Egg?

Last night while sitting in the darkness during Earth Hour 2011, I suddenly remembered a segment on Sesame Street that I saw as a child (see bottom).  It featured Kermit the Frog as a newsman and he was reporting Humpty Dumpty's fall and the efforts of the king's men and horses to put him back together.

Then it struck me.  Why is it that illustrations accompanying the nursery rhyme show Humpty Dumpty as  an egg?  My first step was to check the rhyme and see what it says about Humpty Dumpty.  It goes
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.
 No where in the rhyme can we find that Humpty Dumpty was an egg.  One can only deduce that he was one because all the king's men and horses could not put him back together after he fell from the wall.  Therefore he was fragile and easily broken.  What could be more fragile than an egg?

Since I couldn't stop wondering what Humpty Dumpty really was, I tried to do some research online. (As an aside, I find it really strange to do this after telling you not to believe everything that is on the Internet.)

I found several theories being put forward as to what Humpty Dumpty really was.  One of these is that "Humpty Dumpty" was an old English slang for an obese person or a clumsy person who is prone to falling down.  Another theory said that the rhyme started out as a riddle in the the early 1800s.  Over time, everyone got the answer correctly (an egg) and the riddle was not asked anymore but became a popular children's rhyme.  

I also came upon a site which says that Humpty Dumpty was actually a powerful cannon used to defend a walled city called Colchester.  The cannon was placed on a wall adjacent to St. Mary's Church.  When the city was laid to siege, the wall was destroyed by a mortar and sent Humpty Dumpty falling to the ground.  The cannon broke into pieces and all the king's men (infantry) and horses (cavalry) tried to fix it in vain.  

The most famous depiction of Humpty Dumpty was an illustration in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass.  The picture, drawn by John Tenniel in 1871, shows Alice meeting Humpty Dumpty for the first time.  In the story, Alice found Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall with his legs crossed.  The girl wondered how the egg could keep his balance. Humpty Dumpty engaged Alice in a conversation about words and their meanings which left the girl more confused than enlightened.

In the Sesame Street segment, Humpty Dumpty was put together again.  An overjoyed Kermit the Frog gave him a rather strong pat on the back that sent him falling off the wall again.  The king's men and horses went back to work on fixing him, blaming the frog for the unfortunate incident.

So was Humpty Dumpty an egg, a cannon or a clumsy obese man?  Let's see what he has to say about it. In Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass"when Alice asked him what his name means, the cranky egg replied :
`My name means the shape I am -- and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like your, you might be any shape, almost.' 
Equally baffling is why an egg would want to sit on a wall.  That is, however, another good topic for discussion later.

Here's the video of the Sesame Street segment:


  1. Humpty Dumpty was in fact Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who was made Archbishop of York in 1514 whilst in Henry VIII's favour.He was a very rotund character (Egg-shaped) In 1515 he became a Cardinal but due to pressing duties elsewhere it wasn't till early 1530 he prepared to travel to York for his 'enthronement'He stayed at Cawood Castle for 9 months - just downriver from Bishopthorpe Palace, York.His greatest joy was to sit on the walls of the castle and gaze at the Cathederal where his day of glorification would soon take place.(Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall) After Henry was unable to get permission from the Pope to divorce Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn, Wolsey fell out of favour and was arrested by the Earl of Northumberland and charged with treason. (Had a great Fall) However, being already unwell he died 3 weeks later whilst being escorted to trial in London (all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn't put Humpty together again)