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William Tell

William Tell (German: Wilhelm Tell; French: Guillaume Tell; Italian: Guglielmo Tell) is a legendary hero of disputed historical authenticity who is said to have lived in the Canton of Uri in Switzerland in the early 14th century.

Print of Gessler and Wilhelm Tell


Print of Gessler and Wilhelm Tell


The legend

William Tell from Bürglen was known as an expert marksman with the crossbow. At the time, the Habsburg emperors were seeking to dominate Uri. Hermann Gessler, the newly appointed Austrian Vogt of Altdorf raised a pole in the village's central square with his hat on top and demanded that all the local townsfolk bow before it. As Tell passed by without bowing, he was arrested. He received the punishment of being forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son, Walter, or else both would be executed.

Tell had been promised freedom if he shot the apple. On November 18, 1307, Tell split the fruit with a single bolt from his crossbow, without mishap. When Gessler queried him about the purpose of the second bolt in his quiver, Tell answered that if he had ended up killing his son in that trial, he would have turned the crossbow on Gessler himself. Gessler became enraged at that comment, and had Tell bound and brought to his ship to be taken to his castle at Küssnacht. In a storm on Lake Lucerne, Tell managed to escape. On land, he went to Küssnacht, and when Gessler arrived, Tell shot him with the crossbow.

Tell's defiance of Gessler sparked a rebellion leading to the formation of the Swiss Confederation.

Tell fought in the Battle of Morgarten in 1315. He died in 1354 while trying to save a child from drowning in the Schächenbach, an alpine river in Uri. There is a fresco from 1582 in a chapel in Bürglen showing this scene.

The history of the legend

The first reference to William Tell appears in the White Book of Sarnen (German: Weisses Buch von Sarnen). This volume was written in 1474 by a country scribe called Hans Schriber. It makes mention of the Rütli oath (German: Rütlischwur), the Burgenbruch and Tell’s heroic deeds.

Another documentation of Tell’s exploits is the Song of the Founding of the Confederation (German: Lied von der Entstehung der Eidgenossenschaft). This earliest surviving Tell song (German: Tellenlied) was composed around 1477 by an anonymous poet. It explores the beginnings of the Swiss Confederation, the expulsion of the foreign governors as well as the famous episode of Tell shooting at the apple on his son’s head.

Further reference to William Tell and his adventures is to be found in Petermann Etterlin’s Chronicle of the Swiss Confederation (German: Kronika von der loblichen Eydtgenossenschaft). Etterlin’s chronicle, which was first printed in 1507, is the earliest printed version of the Tell story.

Another account of William Tell’s deeds is given in the chronicle of Melchior Russ from Lucerne. This book, which the author dates to 1482, constitutes nothing more than an incoherent compilation of older writings such as the Song of the Founding of the Confederation or Conrad Justinger’s Bernese Chronicle (German: Chronik der Stadt Bern).

The next reference to William Tell can be found in a Tell play (German: Tellspiel), whose debut performance was probably held in winter 1512/13 in Altdorf. This oldest existing written version of a Tell play is known under the name Urner Tellspiel (German: ‘Tell Play of Uri’).

According to the Swiss historian Jean-François Bergier, Aegidius Tschudi from Glarus merged several earlier accounts of the William Tell myth into the story that is summarized above. Tschudi’s monumental work Chronicon Helveticum (Latin: ‘Swiss Chronicle’), which was written around 1550, became the major model for later writers dealing with William Tell. Not only did Tschudi’s chronicle become the main source for Johannes von Müller’s History of the Swiss Confederation (German: Geschichte Schweizerischer Eidgenossenschaft), it also served as a model for Friedrich Schiller's play William Tell (German: Wilhelm Tell).

Other Tell figures

Although the different William Tell stories are not consistent in all details, they are all constructed around the famous episode of Tell and the apple (German: Apfelschussszene). However, as the educated patrician Gottlieb Emmanuel von Haller and the pastor Simeon Uriel Freudenberger pointed out in 1760 in a short leaflet with the title William Tell, a Danish Fable (German: Der Wilhelm Tell, ein dänisches Mährgen), there are many parallels to the Tell story in Nordic literature.

In fact, the story of a great hero successfully shooting an apple from his child’s head is an archetype present in the story of Egil in the Thidreks saga as well as in the stories of Adam Bell from England, Palnetoke from Denmark and a story from Holstein.

The oldest documented Tell figure is a Danish warrior named Toko whose story appears for the first time in the Gesta Danorum (Latin: ‘Deeds of the Danes’), a twelfth-century text compiled by Saxo Grammaticus. As with William Tell, Toko is forced by King Harald Bluetooth to shoot an apple off his son’s head as proof of his marksmanship. A striking similarity between William Tell and Toko is that both heroes take more than one arrow out of their quiver. When asked why he pulled several arrows out of his quiver, Toko, too, replies that if he had struck his son with the first arrow, he would have shot King Harald with the remaining two arrows.

Historicity debate

François Guillimann, a statesman of Fribourg and later historian and advisor of the Habsburg emperor Rudolph II, wrote to Melchior Goldast in 1607: "I followed popular belief by reporting certain details in my Swiss antiquities ,published in 1598, but when I examine them closely the whole story seems to me to be pure fable.". In 1760, Simeon Uriel Freudenberger from Luzern anonymously published a tract arguing that the legend of Tell in all likelihood was based on the Danish saga of Palnatoke. A French edition of his book, written by Gottlieb Emmanuel von Haller (Guillaume Tell, Fable danoise), was burnt in Altdorf.

This view remained very unpopular, however. Friedrich von Schiller used Tschudi's version as the basis for his play Wilhelm Tell in 1804, interpreting Tell as a glorified patriot assassin. This interpretation became very popular especially in Switzerland, where the Tell figure was instrumentalised in the early 19th century as a "national hero" and identification figure in the new Helvetic Republic and also later on in the beginnings of the Schweizerische Eidgenossenschaft, the modern democratic federal state that developed then. When the historian Joseph Eutych Kopp dared in the 1830s to question the veracity of the legend his effigy was burnt on the Rütli, the meadow above Lake Lucerne where—according to the legend—the oath was sworn that concluded the original alliance between the founding cantons of the Swiss confederacy.

Historians continued to argue over the saga until well into the 20th century. In 1891 Wilhelm Öchsli published a scientific account of the founding of the confederacy (commissioned by the government for the celebration of the first National holiday of Switzerland on August 1, 1891), and dismissed the story as fiction. Yet 50 years later in 1941, when Tell had again become a national identification figure, the historian Karl Meyer tried to connect the events of the saga with known places and events. Modern historians generally consider the saga to be fiction, as neither Tell's nor Gessler's existence can be proven. The legend also tells of the Burgenbruch, a coordinated uprising including the slighting of many forts; however, archeological evidence shows that many of these forts were already abandoned and destroyed long before 1307/08.

In spite of all this, William Tell lives on as a "real" hero in popular culture. He is still a powerful identification figure, and according to a recent survey, 60% of the Swiss believe that he really lived.

A possible historical nucleus of the legend was suggested by Schärer (1986). He identified one Wilhelm Gorkeit of Tellikon (modern Dällikon in the Canton of Zurich). "Gorkeit" is explained as a version of the surname Armbruster (crossbow maker). Historians were not convinced by Schärer's hypothesis, but it is still referred to by the nationalistic right, who denounce its rejection by academia as an "internationalist" conspiracy.

In modern politics and arts

Antoine-Marin Lemierre wrote a play inspired by Tell in 1766 and revived it in 1786. The success of this work established the association of Tell as a fighter against tyranny with the history of the French revolution.

The French revolutionary fascination with Tell was reflected in Switzerland with the establishment of the Helvetic Republic. Tell became, as it were, the mascot of the short-lived republic, his figure being featured on its official seal.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe learned of the Tell saga during his travels through Switzerland between 1775 and 1795. He obtained a copy of Tschudi's chronicles and considered writing a play about Tell, but ultimately, gave the idea to his friend Friedrich von Schiller, who in 1803-04 wrote the play Wilhelm Tell, first performed on March 17, 1804 in Weimar. Schiller's Tell is heavily inspired by the political events of the late 18th century, the French revolution in particular. Schiller's play was performed at Interlaken (the Tellspiele) in the summers of 1912 to 1914, 1931 to 1939 and every year since 1947. In 2004 it was first performed in Altdorf itself.

Gioacchino Rossini used Schiller's play as the basis for his 1829 opera William Tell; the William Tell Overture is one of his best-known and imitated pieces of music.

John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, was inspired by Tell. Lamenting the negative reaction to his deed, Booth wrote in his journal on April 21, 1865 "with every man's hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honoured for and what made Tell a Hero. And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat."

Following a national competition, won by Richard Kissling, Altdorf erected a monument in 1895 to its hero. Kissling casts Tell as a peasant and man of the mountains, with strong features and muscular limbs. His powerful hand rests lovingly on the shoulder of little Walter, but the apple is not shown. The depiction is in marked contrast with that used by the Helvetic Republic, where Tell is shown as a landsknecht rather than a peasant, with a sword at his belt and a feathered hat, bending down to pick up his son who is still holding the apple.

The first film about Tell was made by French director Charles Pathé in 1900; only a short fragment survives.

The design of the Federal 5 francs coin issued from 1922 features the bust of a generic "mountain shepherd" designed by Paul Burkard, but due to a similarity of the bust with Kissling's statue, in spite of the missing beard, it was immediately widely identified as Tell.

Salvador Dalí painted The Old Age of William Tell and William Tell and Gradiva in 1931, and The Enigma of William Tell in 1933.

Adolf Hitler was enthusiastic about Schiller's play, quoting it in his Mein Kampf, and approving of a German/Swiss co-production of the play where Göring's mistress appeared as Tell's wife; but on June 3, 1941 Hitler had the play banned. The reason for the ban is not known, but may been related to the failed assassination attempt in 1938 by young Swiss Maurice Bavaud (executed on May 14, 1941, and later dubbed "a new William Tell" by Rolf Hochhuth), or the subversive nature of the play. Hitler is reported to have exclaimed at a banquet in 1942 "Why did Schiller have to immortalize that Swiss sniper!".

Max Frisch in his "William Tell for Schools" deconstructed the legend, portraying the bailiff as a well-meaning administrator suffering from being placed in a barbaric back-corner of the empire, while Tell is a simpleton who stumbles into his adventure by a series of misunderstandings.

Spanish playwright Alfonso Sastre re-worked the legend in 1955 in his "Guillermo Tell tiene los ojos tristes" (William Tell has sad eyes); it was not performed until the Franco regime in Spain ended.

There are many other pictorial and textual references, ranging from a black humour cartoon by Gary Larson to album covers (e.g. the National Lampoon's "Greatest Hits" album), song lyrics (e.g. in St. Stephen from the Grateful Dead and many others), movies such as the 1928 Charlie Chaplin film The Circus, and even computer games like that in the Beginner's Guide for the Inform programming language.

The TV series "Crossbow", with Will Lyman as William Tell, broadcast 71 episodes on the Family channel from 1987 to 1990.

Tell City, Perry County, Indiana, USA, is named after William Tell.

In the Senses Fail song, The Priest and the Matador, William Tell's name is referenced in the line, "I'm the arrow shot straight to hell, from the bow of William Tell."

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Wilhelm Tell and his son - Statue


Statue of Wilhelm Tell and his son in Altdorf, Switzerland

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