Most of us know that Humpty Dumpty was a large sentient egg who liked to sit on walls despite his unstable shape. He fell off and was broken and that is all that is certain about his life. Various apocryphal stories have become associated with him since his accident. Some people insist he was a philosopher as well as an egg. Others claim he invented a new emotion quite unlike any other emotion in the history of the world, but they are unable to describe what it might feel like. One professor has insisted that he was not an egg but the hull of an alien spacecraft from a distant star or a time machine from the future.
My aim today is not to add to this unhappy catalogue of fictions. I have no tales to tell about the kinds of antics he performed, nor can I offer insights into his character, beliefs or aspirations. Instead I wish to ponder something that is talked about too seldom. If Humpty Dumpty was an egg, what thing would have hatched out of him? Had his shell not been shattered by an external force, we may assume it would have been broken by an inner one, for the ovoid stage of his existence could only be brief and something within must have emerged to escort his identity further along the path of natural development.
No forensic evidence was collected in the wake of his death and our speculations remain purely notional. Yet I think it is possible to construct a plausible scenario using inductive logic alone. First we must attempt to establish what kind of egg he was, reptilian, amphibian or avian. One clue is his propensity for sitting on the tops of walls. It is true that lizards are accomplished wall climbers but they tend to cling to the sides rather than dominate the summits. Amphibians have no interest in walls that are not made of water and while they might congregate at waterfall tops they are disinclined to balance on narrow brick ledges.
There is always the possibility that he was the egg of some organism hitherto unknown on the surface of our world, that he might have come from outer space, from subterranean realms or an alternative dimension. But there is no need to multiply entities beyond necessity and without evidence to point us in that direction, it is safer to continue to assume that he was the egg of a phylum familiar to our zoologists. Personally I favour the avian origin as the most realistic. Birds are constantly perching on our walls and sometimes they fall off too, when icy winds howl or rascals in the neighbourhood acquire new catapults.
Most of us are familiar with impetuosity and impatience. We might be reckless individuals ourselves or have friends and relations who embody the blurred spirits of haste and risk. Humpty was eager to become the bird he was destined to be, whatever kind it was, so keen in fact that he acted prematurely. Instead of remaining in the nest, wherever that was located, he left it and engaged in activities that were too old for him. He perched on walls, yes indeed, but perching high safely is the prerogative of those with wings. He was an egg and probably ignorant of the laws of physics. His fall was almost a foregone conclusion.
Now it is appropriate to turn our attention to the kind of bird he would have become if circumstances had been different. He was a large egg, one sizeable enough to hold audible conversations with human interlocutors, so we may immediately dismiss the vast majority of our feathered friends as candidates. This leaves us with the ostrich, the rhea, the moa, and that extraordinary bird from the island of Madagascar, Aepyornis maximus, so enormous that it inspired the fable of the roc, the bird that swooped down to seize elephants in its talons. No sentient examples of these birds’ eggs have been found, however, which is a pity.
All those birds are based in remote countries, and we are compelled to wonder how an individual egg might cross the oceans that separate these species’ homelands from our own, for it was in England that Humpty had his crisis and those birds are flightless. The ostrich and rhea are too small anyway, and the others went extinct before Humpty existed. The more we consider the matter, the less likely it appears that he was the egg of a bird known to science. Thus we draw the conclusion that he was the egg of an undiscovered bird. What might the bird have been like? Because there are no clues there is no reliable answer to this.
But there is one solution that has an elegant absurdity about it and for that reason alone I am inclined to favour it. Some years ago I happened to be strolling through the city of Cologne. I stopped in order to check the time on my wristwatch, for I am one of those unfortunate fellows who are unable to read numbers and dials while on the move. As I lifted my wrist to my face, a dull but loud creaking above my head made me fear that an object was about to fall on me. I looked up. It was a cuckoo clock fixed to the exterior wall of an old clock shop, one of the largest cuckoo clocks in the world. And it was striking the hour.
The hatch doors were opening, ponderously and painfully, and when they were fully agape the monstrous cuckoo came out. It emerged with a great deal of mechanical effort on an extendable trellis that sagged at its furthest reach. Then the cuckoo widened its beak and after an unsettling pause gave forth a cry of astonishingly dismal cadence. It repeated this sound three times to indicate that the local time was three o’clock in the afternoon and then, as exhausted as a senescent gran, it withdrew into its sanctuary, the hatch doors slamming behind it and the whirring of internal cogs ceasing as abruptly as they had begun.
I was astonished and affronted. I felt an outrage had been committed against my consciousness, that this clock was an insult to public decency, and I found myself wishing some other bird occupied the clock instead of an unmusical cuckoo. And it occurred to me that a different bird had once done so. Certainly it must. We all know the cuckoo’s life cycle. It hatches in a nest not its own and destroys the other eggs in order to be the solitary recipient of all the attention from the bereaved parents. If cuckoos occupy clocks then it logically follows that some other bird once lived in them. A bird of magic. But probably not a phoenix.
What bird lived in the clock before the cuckoo? This question is the key to understanding Humpty Dumpty’s true identity. That is what I now believe, at any rate. Somewhere in this peculiar world of ours the decayed remains of a cuckoo clock may be found, a cuckoo clock vaster by many orders of magnitude than the one I saw in Cologne. The bird that was its original occupant was the one who laid Humpty Dumpty and eggs similar to him. A cuckoo invaded the nest and left an egg that hatched first and rolled out the others. Humpty Dumpty did not break on that occasion. The start of his life was a rehearsal for his death.