In Search of William Tell

Seven hundred years ago, William Tell shot an arrow through an apple on his son’s head and launched the struggle for Swiss independence. Or did he?

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Still, more than 20 years passed after the Oath of Rütli before the Hapsburgs bothered to send an actual army to bring the insolent peasants to their senses and 60 years before they sent a second one. Each time, they came in great force, and each time they let themselves get caught in unfavorable terrain, where their gaudily armored knights were mowed down by the stolid, fierce mountaineers hurling boulders and wielding their pikes, battle-axes and crossbows.

It was enough to shake the world: a handful of rustic louts putting to rout one of the great powers of Europe. In time, more and more cantons, including those surrounding the thriving cities of Zürich, Bern and Basel, joined the confederation that came eventually to be known as Switzerland (a name derived from the little canton of Schwyz). No wonder the Swiss were proud of their exploits, and no wonder they listened eagerly to songs and stories about the courageous ancestors who had first won their freedom.

Above all, they listened to the story of a man named Tell, also known as Thall or Thaell or Tellen—the Wilhelm was added later—who had boldly kept his hat on in the square of Altdorf. Bergier speculates that the tale might have evolved thusly: a band of Danish pilgrims on their way to Rome might have been in an inn one night, listening to old favorite stories like the one about Bluetooth and Toko. Men of Uri might have been drinking there too, catching the drift of the tale about the apple on the little boy’s head.

An apple on the head of a child! Here was the luminous detail that lit up for the simplest soul what life was like under the capricious cruelty of a foreign tyrant. Here was a story that perfectly illustrated how a stubborn, solitary man could stand up and fight back. The next time these men felt like passing on to their neighbors or their children the ever-popular, ever-evolving tale of Tell, it was easy to slip in the apple, which soon became the center of the parable and made Tell a living symbol of the national character: independent, capable, not to be pushed around.

Bergier sees Tell as a father figure the Swiss have created for themselves over the centuries, “a point of reference, unspoken but always present, to which the Swiss constantly attach themselves and in which they recognize themselves.” As when a farmer in Altdorf, explaining the fierce opposition of the people of Uri to Daylight Saving Time, told me bluntly, “We live on Wilhelm Tell time.”

The Swiss turn instinctively to Tell whenever they feel their country is in danger. In the past four centuries, they have had three civil wars, and in each of them both sides marched under the banner of William Tell. He inspired them in the dark days of World War II, when they were surrounded by the armies of a madman who regarded Switzerland as part of the German Reich.

In turn, Tell’s influence and example have extended far beyond the nation’s borders. Moved in part by his fight against their shared enemy the Hapsburgs, French revolutionaries named a street after him in Paris at about the same time they were beheading Queen Marie Antoinette, who had been born a Hapsburg princess. Schiller’s play helped to stoke the fires of European liberalism and, later in the 19th century, provided an important symbol for the founding of Germany. When Rossini’s 1829 opera William Tell was first produced at La Scala in Milan, the city was still part of the Hapsburg Empire, so the setting was changed discreetly to Scotland, and Tell and his son appeared wearing kilts. When the Nazis took power in Germany, casting themselves as the liberators of ethnic Germans in other lands, they made a movie glorifying Tell, with the mistress of Hermann Goering in a leading role. But when those same Nazis began invading other countries a few years later, Tell’s story of liberation sent the wrong message, and they banned the production of any theatrical work about the Swiss hero, not least Schiller’s play.

Movies and television spread the Tell legend further and wider still. In 1940, Hollywood produced an animated cartoon titled Popeye Meets William Tell, in which Popeye plays the son and has a can of spinach shot off his head. And for nearly 20 years, beginning in 1935, Rossini’s heroic William Tell Overture introduced “The Lone Ranger,” first on radio and later on television.

Perhaps the question of whether a man named William Tell actually lived in Uri 700 years ago is no more material than the question of whether a masked Lone Ranger actually roamed the Old West righting wrongs. If it is impossible to prove that Tell existed, it is equally impossible to prove that he didn’t. Nobody can be sure if a man called Tell or Thall or Thaell or Tellen dared to disrespect the hat of a Hapsburg that day in 1291 or 1307. But for hundreds of years—and even today—anyone who takes a stand against thugs from the other side of the mountain can be sure that the spirit of William Tell stands with him.


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