Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Humpty Dumpty Origins - The Fall

I know what thou thinkest, punk. Thou thinkest "doth he have any shot left?" Now to tell thee the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement. But being this is a 42-pounder Royal Cannon, the most puissant piece of ordnance in the realm and will blow thine horse clean in half, thou must ask thyself a question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, dost thou, punk?
As any fool/movie executive knows, every iconic fantasy character must have a dark, gritty origin story. What goes for Batman, The Man of Steel and characters from the the X-Men franchise, also applies to that troubled product of violence and bloodshed, Humpty Dumpty.

The Humpty back story goes something like this. The original Humpty Dumpty was no wholesome egg, but a big, scary cannon, set up on Colchester's town wall by a Royalist garrison during the English Civil War, to outgun and intimidate the besieging Parliamentarians. The wall below Humpty Dumpty was damaged by Parliamentary artillery, resulting in Humpty Dumpty's great fall. All the King's horses and and all the King's men couldn't get Humpty back into action, leaving the Royalists as naked as Dirty Harry with no Magnum, whereupon the Parliamentary punks proceeded to kick their Royal asses.

I came across this interesting fact in The Offspring's latest school reading book (Project X: Strong Defences: Under Attack!), which just shows how much things have changed since I were a lad.

In my day, you'd learn a few historical facts in school, or from a Ladybird book, ('Pausing only to gallantly threw his cloak over a muddy puddle, thus saving Queen Elizabeth's fine clothes from the dirt, Sir Walter Raleigh journeyed Westward Ho! and brought potatoes and tobacco back to England'), which would then have lain dormant at the back of your head for thirty or forty years, until one day you'd happen to tune in to BBC 2, or Dave, and up would pop Stephen Fry to smugly announce how totally wrong everything you thought you'd learned as a child was.*

In these networked times, the lifespan of an interesting fact can often be reduced to the time it takes to google it. Wikipedia doesn't give a more convincing origin story, but it does put the Humpty Dumpty-as-Civil-War-cannon theory into context.

Short version - nobody really knows what Humpty Dumpty means.

Slightly longer version - there's no contemporary evidence for the cannon story, which became popular after being published on the Colchester tourist board's web site in 1996, but is not much better evidenced than rival theories claiming that Humpty was really King Richard III, or a drink of brandy boiled with ale, or a "tortoise" siege engine, used in a different English Civil War siege. Or maybe Humpty was always just a made-up character in a nonsense verse and any resemblance to real persons, or things, living, dead, or inanimate, is purely coincidental.

Elsewhere, there are suggestions that the cannon story predates the Colchester Tourist Board's web site by over 180 years, but that's still more than 160 years short of being a contemporary source. In the absence of any contemporary accounts, others have suggested, just as plausibly, that Humpty Dumpty might have been a satire about King Charles I and his fall from power, but I'm still happy to go with the simplest explanation, that 'Given the actual evidence at hand, it is far more likely that Humpty Dumpty was not intended to be a story, but rather just a riddle posed to children for their amusement'.

*Bonus QI-certified Walter Raleigh factoid - The wife of Sir Walter Raleigh kept his severed head in a red velvet bag for 30 years.