REAL-LIFE HERO OR A WRITER’S CREATION
The Austrian tyrant’s order was crystal clear and humiliating. All the townsfolk had to bow before the tyrant’s hat, hung on a pole in the village of Altdorf. Only one man was courageous enough not to oblige-skilled marksman William Tell.
William Tell, a strong man, mountain climber and an expert shot with the crossbow, passed by the tyrant’s hat with his young son accompanying him and publicly refused to bow to it, leading to his arrest. The tyrant, Hermann Gessler-intrigued by Tell’s famed marksmanship but spiteful of his defiance, decided to make him a victim of a savage jest. Both father and son were to be executed. And the only way to gain redemption from the harsh sentence was if Tell shot an apple placed on his son’s head in a single attempt.
Outside the village of Altdorf, Tell faced his son. One deadly bolt lay on his crossbow. Another jutted from his belt. He fired. The apple split in two and his son was unharmed. Why, asked Gessler, had he taken the second bolt from his quiver?
After being assured by Gessler that he wouldn’t be killed, Tell answered, “It was for your heart if the first had harmed so much as a hair of my son’s head.” Gessler, in a fit of rage, yelled to his soldiers, “Take him to the castle!” Although Tell’s life was spared, he was to be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. He as bundled into a boat with Gessler, and his guards took him across Lake Uri to Gessler’s grim fortress, the dungeon in the castle at Küssnacht.
It so happened that a storm broke out on the way, and the guards, fearing for their lives, begged Gessler to free Tell so that he could take the helm and save them all. Gessler gave in to the desperate requests and Tell leapt from the boat to the rocky site and pushed the boat back into the lake before any of the soldiers or Gessler himself would follow suit.
Gessler’s men were swept to their deaths, but the ruthless tyrant managed to swim back to sure. William Tell was waiting with his second bolt. He fired- and Switzerland was free of the Austrian yoke.
William Tell’s story was first told in the Swiss chronicles of Aegidius Tschudi, a 16th century writer, 200 years after Tell was supposed to have lived. But there is no contemporary evidence at all that Tell and Gessler ever existed.
It seems that Tschudi’s account is a Swiss embellishment of an 11th century legend, for stories of expert archers occur all over Northern Europe. In an early Scottish legend, a bowman called Gilpatrick has to shoot an egg from his son’s head. In a 12th century Saxon story a Tell-like figure appears as Toki, opponent of Harold Bluetooth, and in Norse legends as Toko.
Tschudi seems only to have added details-and made Tell the great Swiss folklore hero he is today.