Tell Tale

11 18 william tellAccording to legend, it was on this day in 1307 that folk hero of Switzerland, William Tell, shot an apple off his son’s head. I was aware of this story, The scene was a huge trope in sketch comedy shows of the 1970s. But I was never quite sure what was so great about this. It seems like a completely mad thing to do and not in anyway laudable. So I looked at the legend to find out why his did this and it turns out that he wasn’t just being a bit of a show off. The first written account we have of his story was written more than 150 years later around 1470 in a book called The White Book of Sarnen.

William Tell was a strong man, a mountain climber and a crack shot with a crossbow. At that time, the rulers of Austria, the Habsburgs, were making a move to take over in Switzerland as well. William Tell and his friends were against this. So when the Habsburgs sent a new mayor, called Gessler, to the town of Altdorf they were pretty upset. Gessler set up a pole in the town square and hung his hat on top of it. He then insisted that everyone should bow in front of the hat. Then on November 18th, William Tell and his young son visited the town. William refused to bow before the hat and was arrested. The punishment for this crime was death. Gessler was angry but he had heard about Tell’s marksmanship, so rather than execute him straight away he devised a more cruel punishment. Both he and his son would die unless Tell could, at the first attempt, shoot an apple balanced on the boy’s head.

Tell split the apple in two and the boy survived, but Gessler had noticed that Tell had taken two crossbow bolts from his quiver, not one. He asked why this was. Tell replied that if he had killed his son with the first bolt, he would have used the second to shoot Gessler. Gessler was furious, but he had promised to spare William’s life so he told him he would spend the rest of his days in prison. He was put in chains and bundled onto a boat to be taken over Lake Lucerne and thrown into the dungeon at Küssnacht. But a storm blew up and the soldiers guarding him thought they would all be drowned. They begged Gessler to free William Tell so he could steer the boat and save them. When he was released Tell steered the boat towards a rock, leapt overboard, pushed the boat back into the waves and escaped. He then ran across country and when the boat eventually put to shore in Küssnacht he used his second bolt to shoot Gessler. So that is a more complete version of the legend of William Tell and it has made him a bit of a symbol for revolutionaries everywhere.

Of course the story is probably entirely fictional. There is no historical evidence that either William Tell or Gessler ever existed. But his story is only one in a long line of tales about people who are forced to shoot an apple off their son’s head. It turns out we’ve enjoyed telling tales about shooting at children for quite a long time. Perhaps one of the earliest is from the twelfth century. It is a story about a man called Palnakote who was put in a similar situation by King Harald Bluetooth of Denmark after he had boasted about his skill in archery, and also possibly raised the king’s son as a pagan and incited him to rebel against his Christian father. There is also a thirteenth century German tale featuring someone named Egill who is forced by King Nidung to shoot an apple from the head of his three-year-old son. Egill also draws two bolts and admits that he would have killed the king with the second one if his son had died. But instead of being angry, the king commends him for his honesty.

The story of Egill may actually be much older. Tales of Egill and his brothers Slagfiðr and Völund (Wayland the Smith) appear in the Poetic Edda, a collection of tales in Old Norse that date back to pre-Christian times. No one really knows how old they are.


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