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Who or What was Humpty Dumpty in the Nursery Rhyme

Updated on March 17, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Beth is a published author. She teaches creative writing to adults and loves helping her students improve their writing skills.

Book cover illustration by William Wallace Denslow for 1904 adaptation of Humpty Dumpty.
Book cover illustration by William Wallace Denslow for 1904 adaptation of Humpty Dumpty. | Source

Humpty Dumpty Rhyme by Unknown Author

"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 nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty is known to date from at least the 18th century although it could have earlier origins. The main character is not explicitly stated to be an egg and some of the earliest illustrations show a youth sitting on top of the wall. An example of this is the illustration used in the 1877 edition of Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes.

From the 19th century onwards Humpty Dumpty is usually shown as an anthropomorphic egg and this is how Humpty Dumpty appears in Tenniel’s drawings for the 1872 edition of Through the Looking Glass. A benign looking egg sits on top of a wall and tentatively extends a hand towards Alice.

John Tenniel's illustration for Through The Looking Glass 1872
John Tenniel's illustration for Through The Looking Glass 1872 | Source

Who or What was Humpty Dumpty?

No-one knows for sure whether the nursery rhyme originally alluded to a specific person or object, although there are two main theories about its origin. One is that Humpty Dumpty was King Richard III of England who was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

The other theory is that Humpty Dumpty was the nickname for a siege gun that was positioned on top of a wall and which subsequently fell due to enemy attack during the English Civil War in 1643. Neither of these theories can be proven, so they remain purely guesses.

Story of the Gun-Canon Named Humpty Dumpty

Warning Rhyme About Dangers of Drink

Stories and poems are a popular way for parents to teach their children about danger. A simple interpretation of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme is that it warns kids about the danger of falling from walls and other high places. However, in the 17th century “Humpty Dumpty” was the slang name for an alcoholic drink consisting of a mixture of brandy and ale.

In the 18th century this same phrase was used to mean a clumsy and awkward person. So the rhyme may have originally been intended as a general warning about the dangers of becoming drunk.

Mother Goose's Humpty Dumpty illustrated by Walter Crane 1877
Mother Goose's Humpty Dumpty illustrated by Walter Crane 1877 | Source

Why is Humpty Dumpty Shown as an Egg?

There is no definitive answer as to why Humpty Dumpty is usually drawn as an egg. A British newspaper, The Guardian, recently posed this question and asked for responses from its readers. The replies included the following theories.

1. In Chapter 6 of “Through the Looking Glass”, Lewis Carroll writes this description of Alice’s first meeting with Humpty Dumpty. “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.” The theory is that modern depictions of Humpty Dumpty are all based on this Victorian interpretation of the far older nursery rhyme.

2. The rhyme was originally a riddle which had a last line (since lost) that asked “What was Humpty Dumpty?” The theory is that the last line was lost as illustrations made it obvious what the answer to the riddle should be, thus losing the element of suspense.

3. Humpty Dumpty was a gun canon that fell off a wall during the Siege of Colchester in 1648. Since the gun was smashed and irreparable, it resembled a formless shape - like an egg and thus that was the way people drew it.

4. One reader quoted a well-known saying about Humpty Dumpty. “Humpty Dumpty has to be an egg … Otherwise the yolk won’t work” Boom-boom!

Eggs are Fragile

Whatever the origins of Humpty Dumpty in the nursery rhyme, using an egg to represent him is a great way to emphasize his fragility. Children quickly learn that if they drop an egg it smashes and its entire contents spill onto the floor. There is no way a broken egg can be glued back together. It is up to adults to explain that people are fragile too. Their bodies will be broken if they fall from a height in the same way as the egg.

A broken egg can't be put together again.
A broken egg can't be put together again. | Source

Writing Rhymes and Poetry

Writing poetry is a way of getting one’s thoughts onto paper. It enables one to express emotion about an event without the pain that may accompany a real life confrontation of those feelings. It can be cathartic to write a poem when something dramatic or life-changing happens.

I wrote the following poem after thinking about a dare that took place when I was a kid aged nine. My friend dared me to jump from a high wall. Being the more sensible child, I said that I would only jump if she would do it first. As expected, the wall was too high and the result was severe injuries for the dare-devil child.

The garage wall was six feet high

with three feet more of earth red tiles

which stretched up to the highest ridge

I bet you can’t he said

The trellis held the damson tight

with perfect holds for climbing on

that stretched up to the high roof ridge

I bet I can she said

The climb was tough and so much more

than it had seemed from down below

the medics tried to patch her up

I bet they can’t you said.

Rhymes for Children

Can nursery rhymes help kids understand danger?

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Children don’t always think through the consequences of their actions. Part of growing up is testing each other and seeing who is the stronger, the braver, or the best at doing something. Unfortunately, this means that the weaker or less able child may sometimes become frightened or come to harm.

The video below shows a film made by kids about how you can be frightened by your own and your friends' dares.

Encourage Children to Take Risks in a “Safe” Environment

Some adults argue that modern parents shield their children too much. Kids need to be able to learn about risk so that they when they are in a new situation they can estimate danger for themselves. One way parents can help is to encourage them in hobbies which have an element of risk but which can initially be well supervised.

The website The Risky Kids has suggestions for 50 things that children should be encouraged to try. One of their suggestions is to introduce kids to tree climbing. Starting with a small apple tree, an adventurous child can progress to taller and more difficult trees to climb. They will learn balance, strength, suppleness, and fear, as well as find fun, excitement, confidence and achievement.


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    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      Some interesting facts here. I always thought it alluded to Richard III, seeing as he was a hunch-back (lately proven by the remains found in the car park!). Yes, nursery-rhymes and songs are a great way to teach children the dangers and pleasures of life (though I hate the Victorian ones which were/are used to frighten, like the bogey-man).

      I love singing rhymes with my grandchildren and they love them too, along with lots of bedtime stories. Great hub. Ann

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