The fairy tales and myths that have come down to us are fractured memories of a community and the problems that befell those who lived there.
For instance, the story of Humpty Dumpty falling off a wall and breaking apart on the cobble stone roadway below is wrong in almost every respect. And the assertion that “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” tried to come to his assistance, is beyond cynical in its retelling of the actual facts.
Alongside any particular distortion of facts is that whatever is prefaced with the phrase “once upon a time” is treated as if it never happened. With a single stroke, we are thereby told that any historical relevance, if it ever existed, has long ago tumbled into oblivion.
Living, as we now do, in an age when fragmentation is the ruling condition, it should not completely surprise us that individual fairy tales may have unsuspected intersections with each other. The community whose stories they tell existed in a place and time. Their history was grounded in a different kind of time than our own but like all times it was a reflection of the great Time that sweeps everything in life along. When we read “once upon a time”, we can be sure that we are in the presence of a kind of time when relationship was more important than things; and appreciation for what we already have was more important than missing what we don’t.
Yet even then, in what may have been a kinder, gentler world, there were those who craved power. And those individuals were not always the pick of the litter. What allows happiness and meaning to prosper was as subject to loss then as it is now. In that respect, ‘once upon a time’ was no different than our present world’s rapid-fire replacement of the old with the new.
The official fairy tales that have reached us and which are often the only record we have, may have departed wildly from what actually happened. Usually, there is nothing on which we could base a better understanding, but in some cases, we do. Love letters have survived, written by Humpty Dumpty to the fair maiden Hubbard, who in the official tale is called ‘Old Mother Hubbard’. But she was actually such a renowned beauty that the King of Hearts—probably more impressed with her reputation than anything else–sent her a message saying that he would take her on in matrimony.
When she responded in a letter of her own that she was promised to another, the king sent his men on horseback to visit her, to “make her an offer that she couldn’t refuse.” The king’s men rode through her living room into the kitchen where they found Humpty standing on a step ladder, reaching for a pack of noodles, as his betrothed sauteed vegetables in a skillet.
The captain of the guard, surveying this tender scene, dismounted and kicked the step ladder out from beneath Humpy’s spindly legs, whereupon he fell hard onto the tile floor and broke into pieces. Then the captain stood on the stepladder and scooped everything off the shelves.
What remains in the version that has come down to us are just a few of the captain’s words: “Seems your cupboard is quite bare.”
When the relatives of Humpty and Hubbard spoke of this event, as they did on certain anniversaries when his absence was acutely felt, their words bore no relationship whatsoever to the official version that the king’s scribes had soon constructed, in which Humpty and Hubbard had never even met one another.
I didn’t know!