If there’s one thing I’ve started to notice during my study of legends it’s how, based on one’s proximity to the legend in question, a story and character can be reduced down to a single event or feat.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take William Tell for an example. We’ve all heard the name, but what do we know about him? Well, in my experience, I know that he shot an apple off of his son’s head. However, it wasn’t until I started researching this legend that I realized that I never really knew why he shot an apple off of his son’s head. I suppose I just thought he did it to show off or something. The actual story as told by the people who hold it dear tells a different tale.
The legend states that William Tell was a man from Uri in what would now be the country of Switzerland. He was famed for being a strong man, a mountain climber and an ace shot with a crossbow. During this time, the Habsburg emperors of Austria were trying to dominate the area. The duly appointed governor by the Habsburgs at that time was a man named Gessler. Gessler, in order to show his dominance over the would-be Swiss state came up with the idea to erect a pole in the middle of the city of Altdorf, hang his hat on it and make people bow to his hat. One day, William Tell and his son Walter visited Altdorf. Seeing the ludicrous display of people bowing to a hat on a pole, William Tell publicly refuses. He is then arrested. Angered by Tell’s defiance but intrigued by the reputation of his marksmanship, Gessler comes up with an idea. Tell and his son would be executed, however he would spare their lives if Tell could shoot an apple off his sons head with a crossbow bolt in a single attempt. Tell manages to make the shot and splits the apple in two. However, Gessler had noticed that Tell had removed two bolts from his quiver and asked him what the second one was for. William Tell tells Gessler that if he had missed the shot and killed his son, then he would have used the second bolt to kill Gessler. Gessler then accuses Tell of plotting to assassinate him and orders him imprisoned in the dungeon of his castle. He’s loaded onto Gessler’s boat and they start to bring him to the castle across Lake Lucerne. However, a storm kicks up and Gessler’s soldiers get Gessler to release Tell to help steer the boat because they’re afraid it will founder during the storm. Gessler agrees, but once the boat is near shore, Tell uses the opportunity to escape. Tell runs cross country and Gessler and his soldiers make chase. Eventually, Tell does use the second crossbow bolt to kill Gessler in a place now called Hohle Gasse. Tell’s actions are said to have sparked a revolution against the Austrian empire which he would supposedly play a big part in. This would eventually lead to the formation of the Swiss Confederacy.
Given some context, this story is actually quite impressive. What once seemed like a stunt to my American mind far from the Swiss Alps and their history now seems like a courageous act of defiance. It’s no wonder that William Tell is considered a national hero of the Swiss and a key figure in Swiss patriotism.
So what could rain on the parade of this great historical figure? Maybe the fact that William Tell and his famed apple shot probably didn’t exist at all.
Legends are a double-edged sword. They’re the place where history and folk story come together to intertwine. However, they also can prove to be the bane of historians in that the farther you get from the historical period the harder it gets to sort fact from fiction (as a storyteller, I find that I personally don’t care as long as the end result is a cracking good tale). We know there really was a John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) and a Davey Crockett, yet we’re not sure if there was a real King Arthur, John Henry, Robin Hood or Hua Mulan. Either it was too long ago or the evidence just isn’t there.
The factuality of William Tell’s existence has been debated since 1607 when statesman and historian Francois Guillimann reexamined his own work Swiss Antiquities and found that mush of the popular belief he published turned out to be pure fable (I’m paraphrasing).
Other writers have rejected the Tell legend and received rather impassioned backlash from the Swiss people. In 1760, Simeon Uriel Freudenburger anonymously published a book saying that his story was likely based on the Danish saga of Palnatoki. A French translation of his book by Gottlieb Emmanuel von Haller was burnt in Altdorf. Historian Joseph Eutych Kopp questioned the legend in the 1830s and his effigy was burnt in a meadow above Lake Lucerne (the Swiss sure seem to like burning things when they’re angry. No offense to any Swiss readers I might have).
It makes sense if you dig back into the past. The story of the famous “apple shot” seems to repeat itself through various older works published in Germanic languages. The earliest example does come from the Danish story of Palnatoki published by Saxo Grammaticus in the 12th Century. Palnatoki is ordered to shoot an apple from his son’s head by the king Harald Bluetooth. In the 13th Century, there is the Finnish saga of Egil who is ordered to shoot an apple from the head of his 3 year-old son. There’s even an English version in which a man named William of Cloudeslee, a compatriot of outlaw Adam Bell, is tasked with shooting an apple from the head of his seven-year-old son. It’s been theorized that the story was picked up from travelers from either Denmark or Finland that were travelling through Switzerland and it was worked into a preexisting folk legend about a man named Tell or Thaell or Thall or Tellen (the first name was added later).
However, for all the good this has done in casting doubt over the veracity of the legend among historians, it has done little to affect the admiration of the Swiss people. In a 2004 survey, 60% of the Swiss said that they believed that William Tell really existed. Also, while Tell’s famous feat may have appeared in other works, it’s through media that Tell’s legend grew and became the one we know by name today. One of the most popular was a play by Friedrich von Schiller that was first performed in 1804 and drew heavily on then-recent events like the American and French revolutions. Gioachino Rossini would write an opera based on Schiller’s play that would first get performed in 1829. The finale of the opera’s overture would more than a century later go on to be the theme song for The Lone Ranger in radio, television and a couple of rather regrettable movies (“HI HO SILVER!”). That’s just the beginning, though. The Legend of William Tell was also lampooned in a Popeye cartoon from 1940. There was also a British TV series TheAdventures of William Tell that aired in 1958 and another series about Tell in the 1980s entitled Crossbow (the latter show having an oddly ‘80s rock sort of theme song). I wouldn’t be surprised to see either Tell or his feat with the apple referenced on either Grimm or Once Upon a Time within a year or two.
William Tell may not have really existed. His legend also tends to lose just a bit of context when transmitted outside of Switzerland. However, this legend continues to inspire an entire nation. And it’s that ability to inspire that really make William Tell The Stuff of Legends!
Interesting, I heard that Overture in various context, but was never aware it was from the Tell opera.ReplyDelete
I'm personally mostly familiar with Tell because of the play. While I'm not a big fan of Schiller, I gotta say William Tell is one of his better plays. A shame that it isn't getting more credit.