The Real William Tell

Was he a Dane or an Icelander or a Celtic Mother Goddess?

 In the center of the town square stands a heroic bronze figure, a stern sturdy bearded man in homespun peasant clothes, holding a crossbow over his right shoulder, with his right arm laid protectively around the shoulders of his little barefoot son. A stern sturdy man in a neat business suit, with an arm around the shoulders of his little son, who wears Reeboks, stands in front of it, frozen in respectful silence. Then he points to the ground at his feet. “This is the spot,” he says.


 He has no need to say anything more. The boy knows what spot he means, it is the birth-place of their country. He knows why the bronze boy is looking up with such affectionate trust and confidence at the bronze man – he is William Tell, the man who with one shot of his bow started the centuries-long grievous and glorious series of events which turned a few isolated settlements of poor backward medieval mountaineers into the proud and prosperous modern nation of Switzerland..


 And he knows what Tell did here, why he came here. He has heard the story by his bedside when he was a tot, he has heard it in the classroom, seen it on television and in comic books and acted out at country fairs or in school theatricals.. He knows that on this spot, on an autumn day many hundred years ago, Tell, a local farmer and famous hunter, came striding with his little boy through the market square of Altdorf, then as now the only town of any size in the canton of Uri. In the center of the square a pole had just been put up by the bailiff Gessler, agent of a foreign ruler, the Habsburg duke of Austria, and on top of the pole he had placed a hat, a Habsburg hat, and announced to the sound of trumpets that all passersby must uncover their heads before it or lose their lives and all their property..William Tell, man of Uri which recognized no foreign ruler, strode by it with his cap firmly fixed on his head. He was promptly dragged before Gessler, who would hear no word of explanation but put an apple on the head of his little son and told him that if he did not shoot it off with one arrow from a distance of a hundred and twenty paces both he and the boy would be put to death. Tell steadily paced out the distance, steadily loaded and aimed his crossbow, he shot off an arrow, and the apple fell. Your life is now safe, said Gessler, but kindly tell me why I saw you putting a second arrow inside your jacket? If my first arrow had killed my son, replied William Tell, I would have shot the second at you and I would not have missed.

 Gessler, enraged by the insolence of this lowborn rustic, ordered him to be bound and carried down to Lake Lucerne, and thrown on to a boat which would take him to a dungeon in his grim castle of Küssnacht, where, he explained, “You will never more see sun or moon.”


 The square in Altdorf is only the first step in a pilgrimage which will first take father and child of the 21st century, following countless others for many generations, to the chapel built on the site of Tell’s home in the village of Bürglen, then on to the landing from which Gessler and his prisoner took off on the treacherous waters of the long narrow Lake Lucerne twisting between towering rock walls. And then a few miles to the east, to the spot on the south shore where a steep path takes them down to the flat rock at the water’s edge known as Tellsplatter, or Tell’s Ledge. The water here can at any moment be stirred up by wayward violent winds from north or south, and such a wind sprang up to toss Gessler’s bark about till it threatened to capsize with every successive wave, and there was no man on board who could hold the rudder steady in such weather but William Tell. So they had to release him from his bonds, and he steered for the ledge because he knew every inch of this countryside, till he came close enough to snatch up his bow and arrows and jump ashore, and with a mighty kick backwards he sent Gessler and his crew back into the turmoil of the waves. There is a chapel there now, which father and son visit in reverent silence, built on the spot where Tell uttered the words, “I must go to the Hollow Way.”


 It takes a twenty-mile ride through dark forest and over precipitous mountain passes for the man and boy to reach the Hollow Way, a sunken road at the other end of the lake which in those days led to Küssnacht. There was no paved road for Tell to take to get there, but he who had hunted bears and wolves and chamois and eagles all his life in just such country, had no trouble finding his way and taking up his post behind a giant tree. He calculated that Gessler would probably make it to shore somehow and come home breathing damnation against all Uri. And when he saw him come riding into the Hollow Way, he shot him dead with his second arrow.


 The final stage of the pilgrimage will take man and boy back to the lake and take a boat to a landing on the bank opposite to Tell’s Ledge. Here there is a meadow, a forest clearing or Grütli, at the foot of a sheer pine-covered rise of six hundred meters. At the top of the ridge there is a now a Hare Krishna center, but no more than in Tell’s day is there any road leading to the Grütli, you have to go there by boat. Here Tell came, after he had killed Gessler to join three men, all of whom had been deeply wronged by Gessler and other hired hands of the Habsburgs. They had come in the name of the three Waldstätten, forest cantons, of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, and they swore an oath “to assist each other with aid and every counsel and every favor, with person and goods, with might and main, against one and all, who may inflict on them any violence, molestation or injury, or may plot any evil against their persons or goods.” And here they gave orders for mountain-top bonfires to signal the start of a war of national liberation with simultaneous assaults on New Years Eve to tear down all the castles like Gessler’s which the Austrians had erected to overawe the land.


 The boy knows the oath by heart, he has learned it at school, and repeats it now.


 As they return in the boat from the Grütli, the boy’s attention shifts wholly to the football scores coming in on the radio. The father gives a disapproving look but says nothing: he know that his son, even if he never mentions William Tell again till he takes his own son to the Grütli, has William Tell in his heart forever.


 As the boy grows up, he will learn that, whatever he is told at home or in school, historical scholars have grave doubts that all or any of the actions ascribed to Tell in those few famous days around Lake Lucerne actually happened. Indeed they have grave doubts than any one named William Tell ever existed.

 The Tell saga in the consecutive narrative form that is universally familiar today was not written down on paper until some two hundred and fifty years after the events its describes, by a historian named Aegidius Tschudi. Two hundred and fifty years offers plenty of time for mistakes, misinterpretations, embellishments, innocent inventions and outright lies to creep into a narrative that had previously only been spread by song and ballad and bedtime story... And though Tschudi was a conscientious scholar, he was not infallible.

 For one thing, he got his dates wrong. Two hundred years after his death [in 1758, to be exact] a forgotten document turned up in a forgotten archive, and it proved to be a copy of the original agreement made and signed by the representatives of the three Forest Cantons. The document, in which the name Tell nowhere appears, was dated “the beginning of August 1291,” so the whole episode of the oath of Grütli had to be moved back sixteen years. And Tell and his apple had to be moved back along with it..(Only Uri remains stubbornly faithful to old tradition: on the monument to William Tell in Altdorf is the defiant inscription,1307.) And Swiss Independence day, the equivalent of our Fourth of July, is now celebrated with bonfires on the First of August.

 Worse was to follow. In the middle of the 18th century, a scholar in Berne named Gottlieb de Haller happened to pick up an old history of Denmark written around 1200 by one Saxo the Grammarian (it was the book which gave Shakespeare the material he needed about a dysfunctional royal family which included a prince named Omlet, wisely respelled Hamlet by the Bard), and in it he happened to read a tale of the first Christian king of Denmark, Harald Bluetooth, who reigned, and suffered severe dental problems, from 936 to 966, and a Viking chieftain named Toko (or Palna-Toki) who was in his service. One drunken evening Toko boasted that he could do anything with his bow and arrow, he could shoot an apple off the top of a pike at the other end of the hall. Good, said the King, I will now place an apple on the head of your little son and you will shoot it off. There was no arguing with a king: Toko took up his weapon, told the boy to look the other way, shot off the apple. Bravo, said the King, now tell me why you have put two extra arrows inside your vest.. To kill you, Sire, said Toko, in case I killed my son.

 Bluetooth took the answer as perfectly normal for a Viking, and laughed heeartily, but he then went on to pick up another of Toko’s boasts, that he could ski down any mountainside. He took him to the top of a sheer cliff overlooking the sea, and said, Here you are, now ski. Toko succeeded in getting down safely and went off to join the young crown prince Sweyn Fork-Beard, who was in revolt against his father. In the course of a subsequent battle, he came across Bluetooth relieving himself behind a bush and he put an arrow through his heart.

 De Haller needed no more to produce a book of his own, of which the theme was summed up by the title, William Tell, a Danish Fable. There was universal and violent outrage in Berne and all Switzerland against the mud thus thrown on a national hero. There was a court action, and a copy of the book was publicly burned in the same Altdorf square once dominated by the tyrant’s hat, and the author might have followed if he had not made abject excuses, saying it was all an academic exercise, a learned joke.

 But the door was wide open now, and other scholars rushed hastened in to pick apart everything, to disprove everything in the Tell story. They discovered that there had been no organized uprising in the Forest Cantons after the Oath of Grütli, that while many chateaux had been sacked, it had been done either well before or well after 1291. And as for William Tell himself, they found not a scrap of documentary evidence that any man of that name had ever existed, let alone shot an apple off any one’s head..

 Shooting a small object off a head, they discovered, was a commonplace of northern-European folklore, feats just like Tell’s had been ascribed to a man named Eindridi in Norway (with a walnut as target), a man named Heming in Iceland (with a chessman), an English outlaw named William of Clouderley (with an apple), and by other more obscure archers in Finland, Esthonia cand Mecklemburg.. They concluded, and the whole learned profession has tended to agree with them ever since, that Tell was a fictional character based on muddled memories of ancient legend or prehistoric myth, he was a watered-down version of some primeval sun-god, if not of the Celtic earth-mother goddess Tailtiu. The most recent general history of Switzerland devotes twenty dismissive lines to Tell in a volume of 1005 pages. (But when its authors had to choose an image for its front cover, the best symbol of Switzerland they could come up with was the heroic bronze statue of Tell with his bow and his boy standing in the market-square of Altdorf.)

 For Professor Jean-François Bergier, author of the latest and by far the best of the biographies of William Tell, the historians who have tried to get rid of Tell as a real red-blooded historical person are throwing out the baby with the, admittedly soiled, bath water. Of course, he says, the apple story was imported from Scandinavia (probably originally from Norway or Iceland rather than Denmark, since there are no cliffs in Denmark). Of course the sequence of events, and the events themselves, have become jumbled in the course of many generations of oral transmission. But the fact remains that something very important did happen in the mountains of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden around the turn of the fourteenth century: for the first time in history a small determined people established a principle generally established today but unthinkable then, that a small determined people could revolt successfully against a great power and maintain itself as a self-governing entity into a long and prosperous future. Many had tried it before, as the Jews did under the Maccabees in 168 BC. But they all petered out within a few years or generations. In the 20th century scores of peoples have tried it, from East Timor to Chechniya; but the returns are not in yet. The Swiss federation founded at Grütli or some other place much like Grütli in 1291 or 1307 or whatever other year the historians may come up with, is still going strong after seven hundred years.

 History did turn around in those obscure gorges, but exactly how or why or when will never be known, for lack of records. But it is permissible to form a few general ideas.

 The inhabitants of the Forest Cantons had come here in dribs and drabs over distant centuries, the flotsam of every barbarian tribe or nation – neolithic peoples, bronze-age peoples, Celts, Cimbri, Teutons, Helvetians, Rhetians, Leoponotians, Burgundians, Alamans --which drifted eastward or westward over the great plateaus north of the Alps in search of richer lands to cultivate or to loot, or to escape the cops. They pushed their way up the narrow Alpine valleys till they came up against sheer rock walls and had to settle down and cut down forests and try to scratch a living out of steep inhospitable slopes, perpetually at the mercy of fire and flood and, avalanche and landslide. In time, they would start raising cattle and sheep, and they could barter their hides and cheeses with lowlanders for salt and saws and hammers and an occasional luxury item like a crossbow, a precision instrument which could not be made at home but had to be imported at great expense from workshops in Germany or Italy..

 They lived on for hundreds, thousands, of years in splendid isolation, in a silence broken only (as it is today on the upper slopes) by the tinkle of distant cow-bells and the growl of distant waterfalls, a tough taciturn people, set in their ways and fiercely proud.. A monk of the tenth century reported that once two very high noblemen passing a shepherd on a mountain roadside were so struck by his dignity that they instinctively lifted their hats.

 Such outsiders were few in number: No one in the civilized parts of the world could have any conceivable interest in these raggedy illiterate hillbillies with their aberrant customs - didn’t the women mow the grass and bring in the hay, while the men milked the cows and made the cheeses? – and their gruff manners and outlandish guttural accent. Since they lived in dead-end valleys with no strategic importance, and since they were so poor that it was hardly worth the cost of sending in agents sporadically to pick up taxes and rents, they were left pretty much alone by whatever empire or kingdom or monastery or feudal lord claimed some kind of sovereignty over them. Left to their own devices, forced to cooperate in the everlasting struggle against the unforgiving mountains, they developed rough-and-ready community structures, with officials elected at assemblies of the land-owners to oversee matters like the use of common pasture lands of the upper slopes when the snows melted, or to apportion the labor involved in making huge round cheeses out of milk from the cows of different families. As in mountain communities everywhere, tight-knit families and clans might bicker about property rights. or real or imagined slights and insults and assaults on the chastity of sisters and cousins, but they were all bound by a common devotion to their own long-settled ways of doing things, and they presented a united front against foreigners on the other side of their mountains.

 It all began to change, however, with the global warming which started around the year 1000. This raised the snow line, increased the pasture land, produced more cows. With more cows to sell, the mountain men began to look for wider markets, and there were many such just over the crest of the Alps in Italy. The St. Gothard pass at the summit just a few miles to the south was easy to navigate, but the only way up to the pass from the north was blocked by a terrifyingly deep impassable gorge. The men of Uri, who had learned how to build sturdy houses on impossibly steep slopes, learned how build a sturdy bridge and stretched it across the gorge. At least, historians are convinced they did it, because if any recognized authority like a Holy Roman Emperor or an Archbishop of Milan had performed such a major engineering feat he would have had chroniclers and epic poets writing volumes about it, and there is not a scrap of written material anywhere to indicate when and how the work was done. At all events, the bridge was built sometime in the middle of the 13th century and almost immediately changed the economic map of Europe. The St Gothard now offered the shortest and most convenient route for the passage of commerce and traffic between northern Europe and Italy, a super-highway tramped year-round by merchants, soldiers, strolling minstrels, students heading for the University of Bologna, pilgrims heading for Rome, knights errant heading for adventure, all of whom had to take a three-day journey through the land of Uri, and pay the men of Uri for the use of their mules to carry them and their baggage, and provide them with food and shelter on the weary way. Backward insignificant Uri had become a major strategic square on the European chessboard  

 At the same time as it was becoming a little more prosperous, Uri was being torn by internal strife between the rival clans of the Izzelins and the Gruobas, as later West Virginia would by the Hatfields and the McCoys, they were killing each other in every vertical forest and farm, and they recognized no authority to stop them. In desperation, the community appealed, on a dark day in 1257, to a neighboring nobleman who was widely respected for his strength and sagacity, Count Rudolph von Habsburg.

 He was only too happy to oblige. He came with a glittering retinue, settled matters between the Gruobas and the Izzelins, and also bought in a host of judges, bailiffs, administrators, constables and such, and they began poking their noses into every one’s business. Since they wore Habsburg uniforms and had money and decrees and writs and armed soldiers to back them up, it did not take them long to feel that they owned the place, and could kick the natives, the hicks, around as they wished. They confiscated private property, they seduced or violated wives and daughters, they tore down buildings of peasants who were uppity enough to use noble stone instead of plebeian wood for their walls.

 Rudolph was actively pursuing an old tradition of the Habsburg family which, starting off about three centuries earlier in the lower rungs of the nobility with a few hardscrabble acres of farmland along the Rhine had managed, by a long canny combination of force and fraud and flattery of princes and bribery and blackmail and marriage to rich heiresses and foreclosing mortgages taken out by spendthrift heirs, to create a more and more solid block of contiguous territories in the center of Europe. They were a remarkably tenacious family, In another three hundred years Rudolf’s descendants would be ruling half of Europe and three-quarter of the Americas, the first empire on which the sun never set.

 At first it must have seemed like only a minor annoyance that at the heart of this empire, an ornery little group of mountaineers (the whole population of the three forest cantons could not have been more than twenty thousand), living in ravines gouged into the rock over thousands of years by glaciers and raging torrents, with their farmhouses and cows perched precariously in forest clearings on the near-vertical slopes, insisted on being left alone.

 They began, not at first an armed resistance, but a sullen succession of mutterings, protests, scuffles, isolated challenges, isolated assaults, a gradual erosion of Austrian authority, a refusal to show respect to an Austrian hat. It was more than twenty years after the Oath of Grütli that the Habsburgs bothered to send an actual army to bring the insolent peasants to their senses, and sixty years more to send a second one.. Each time they came carelessly in great force, and each time they let themselves be caught in unfavorable terrain, and their gaudily armored knights on horseback were mowed down by the stolid fierce (one of their traditions was to take no prisoners in battle ) mountaineer foot-soldiers with their pikes and their battle-axes and their cross-bows. It was enough to shake the world: a handful of peasant louts had put to rout one of the great powers of Europe. More and more cantons, including thriving cities like Zurich and Berne and Basel, joined the confederation which gradually came to be known as Switzerland (a name derived from the little canton of Schwyz) and the name and fame of Switzerland began to spread. Long before it began making watches and chocolate bars, Switzerland grew rich by exporting tough trustworthy young men to serve as elite troops for all the kings and popes and emperors of Christendom..

 No wonder these people were proud of their own exploits, and even more of the exploits of great grandfathers who had first won for them their precious freedom. No wonder they listened eagerly to songs and stories about those ancestors in taverns and around campfires and passed them along to their children at the supper table or at bed-time. The story-tellers of course were no more interested than you and I in all the meanders in Switzerland’s long road to independence, which was not officially recognized by the Habsburgs till the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, all the jumble of skirmishes, battles, truces, alliances, betrayals, foreign invasions, peasants’ revolts, civil wars, plagues, famines and economic growth which are detailed in the history books. For them it made more dramatic sense to reduce it all to a few striking scenes, the striking deeds which brought liberty to the land, performed by the mighty men which were of old, men like Arnold of Mechtal, Werner Stauffacher, Walter Fürst, Conrad of Baumgarten (who had come home from cutting wood to find a minion of the Hapsburgs in his bathtub ogling his wife and buried his axe in the wretch’s skull) and above all a man named Tell (the William, which in medieval Europe was applied as loosely as Joe in modern America, came later) who had boldly kept his hat on in the square of Altdorf..

 Dozens of versions of a ballad about this Tell, also known as Thall or Thaell or Tellen, have survived. In the oldest known version the hero is thrown in the lake by Gessler and drowned. In another, he proudly refuses the crown of Switzerland offered to him by his grateful compatriots. In still another, he lives to the ripe old age of sixty and dies heroically by leaping into a mountain torrent to save the life of the a little child before he is himself dashed against the rocks.

 There were other tales about other heroes than these being told in the mountains in those days. The armies of pilgrims coming down from the north on the way to the holy sites of Rome brought with them minstrels to sing to them at night the traditional sagas of their homelands.

 As Professor Bergier speculates, a band of Danish pilgrims might well have been in an inn one night, relaxing after a hard day’s tramping over rocky roads, listening to old-favorite stories, like the one about Bluetooth and Toko. There might well be Uri men drinking there too, the men who drove the mules, the interpreters who helped the haggling over the price of cheese and ale, men who had picked up enough Old Danish (which in those days was not as different from the Old High German of the forest cantons as it later became) to catch the drift of the story. They would not have been able to make head or tail of Toki’s ski performance, skis being unknown in Switzerland until they were imported by an Englishman in the late 19th century. But there was the apple, and the apple did it.

 The apple changed an all-too-ordinary anecdote of police brutality into a timeless parable of human courage, human pride, human loyalty.. An apple on a little boy’s head to be shot at across the market square! Here was the luminous detail, packed with pathos and emotion, that lit up for the simplest soul what it was like to live under the arbitrary cruelty of a foreign tyrant, and how a stubborn solitary man could stand up against it and triumph over it. It must have sounded just like the kind of thing a man like Tell would have done in the old days, when the time came to get rid of the Austrians.

 The next time any of these men felt liking passing on to his neighbors or his children the ever-popular and ever-lengthening tale of Tell, it was easy to slip in the apple. And once in, there was no holding it. The apple became the center of the story, it would eventually join the two other immortal apples that haunt the imagination of the world to this day: the apple that Eve gave to Adam (which modern scholars insist must have been a fig or an apricot) and the apple which fell in Isaac Newton’s garden to teach him the laws of universal gravitation (which modern scholars say was a light-hearted improvisation on Newton’s part to distract attention from the hundreds of sleepless nights he had spent working out the mathematical equations).

 The apple marked off Tell, it enabled him to travel out of his mountain enclave, leaving Arnold of Mechtal and the rest behind. He became the ever-living ever-growing symbol of his independent land. He was the Swiss that every Swiss hoped to be capable of being, self-reliant, self-confident, quietly efficient, not to be kicked around..

 The image was everywhere, in paintings on rich men’s walls (like the splendid Fuseli now in the Kunsthaus, Zurich), paintings on doors and furniture in peasants’ houses, woodcuts, statues, ceramics, stained-glass windows, carved wine-cups for drinking on patriotic occasions. And it still appears everywhere: it appears on public buildings and on political posters and on cheese boxes. Every item of export that passes the borders is stamped with Tell’s crossbow to show that it is genuinely Made in Switzerland.

 The Swiss are not a demonstrative people, and they do not go around talking about William Tell any more than Americans go around talking about George Washington. But he is just as firmly established in their hearts as the father of his country. His image passes before their eyes every time they handle a five-franc piece just as Washington’s does on our dollar bills. They may go for months or years without mentioning his name, but when they do, it is emphatic. As when a farmer having a beer in Altdorf explained to me the fierce opposition of the people of Uri to daylight saving time with the words, “We live on Wilhelm Tell time.” Or as a professor in Geneva puts it, {André Resszler, Mythes et Identités de la Suisse, Geneva 1986), he is a “symbol of national ancestral identity.” As Professor Bergier says, Tell is a kind of 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.” He is a benign kind of father figure, and references to him are generally good-humored, except when smart aleck writes an article in some publication to repeat the old canard that he never existed. And then the publication receives an avalanche of outrage. A few years ago some one wrote (quite erroneously) that the crossbow had not been invented in William Tell’s day, and angry correspondents demanded that an apple should be put on the cowardly caitiff’s head, to be shot at with a genuine thirteenth-century crossbow in the market square of Altdorf.

 And when the Swiss feel that their country is in danger, they instinctively turn to him for support. They have had three civil wars in the last four centuries, and in each of them both sides marched under the banner of William Tell. In political debate, radicals have adored him as a tyrant-killer, liberals have admired him as a foe of the old order, conservatives have respected him because of his loyalty to old traditions. In the dark hours of the Second World War, when Switzerland was a small island of peace entirely surrounded by the unbeaten armies of a madman who regarded it as a legitimate part of the German Reich, Tell stood firm in every citizen’s mind as a sign-post of firmness in the cause of national unity and independence.


 It did not take long for his fame to radiate far beyond the Alps..Catherine de Medici, Queen of France in the 16th century, was proud to have a “genuine portrait” of Tell in her palace (it is now in the Tell-Museum in Bürglen). Two centuries later, the French revolutionaries named a street for him in Paris while they were chopping of the head of Queen Marie Antoinette, who had been born a Hapsburg princess..He became an international symbol of national liberation, sometimes in strange guise. When Rossini’s opera of 1829, which did more than anything else to spread the fame of William Tell throughout the world, was first produced at La Scala in Milan, Milan was part of the Austrian Empire, and it was feared that the authorities would not take kindly to a work in which all the villains were Austrian, so the libretto was changed to place the scene of the action in Scotland, and Tell and his son wore kilts.

 When the Nazis took power in Germany they saw themselves as the liberators of ethnic Germans in other lands, and they made a movie in 1934 to glorify Tell the liberator, with the mistress of Hermann Goering playing Mrs.Tell. When a few years late they began trampling on the liberties of other countries, they banned production of any theatrical work about Tell, including the play by Schiller which had been considered one of the glories of the German theater since it was first produced in 1804.

 In the 20th century, films and television have taken over the task of spreading the name of Tell, from Les Aventures de Guillaume Tell by Georges Méliès, one of the pioneers of the silent film, in 1898, through epic costume dramas and animated cartoons like the Popeye Meets William Tell of 1940 in which Popeye plays the son and has a spinach can shot off his head, to the 72-episode international TV coproduction of the late 1980's.

 For nineteen years, from the first radio show of 1935 to the last tv show of 1954, parents all over America could hear their children chanting at all hours Ta ta Tum, ta ta Tum ta ta Tum Tum Tum.ta ta tum ta ta TA ta ta tum tum tum, the theme from the overture to Rossini’s opera which introduced every episode of the long saga of The Lone Ranger. The children, now grown up, can listen to the tune today on many of the 11349 websites devoted to this Tell-figure who stood up against the malefactors trying to subvert the good old ways of the Old West.
For the millions of people who have thrilled to his story, the question of whether a man named William Tell actually lived in Uri seven hundred years ago is no more material than the question of whether The Lone Ranger actually lived in Texas. In point of fact, the Lone Ranger was a creation of professional script-writers. But Davy Crockett who provided a very similar character for a later generation was a well-documented historical character, he was even elected to the U. S. House of Representatives.

 All of us but the crustiest historical scholars secretly wish that we could prove the William Tell was real flesh and blood, just like Davy Crockett.. We will never be able to, but we can console ourselves with the fact that if it is impossible to prove his existence, it is equally impossible to disprove it. He has been turned into a legend, but unlike other legends his story is perfectly plausible, similar incidents might take place any time anywhere the political situation was as explosive as it was in Uri in 1291. Unlike other legendary heroes like Achilles and King Arthur, there is nothing supernatural in the story of his life, no Holy Grails to seek or gods or devils to interfere in the action, no lost distant cities like Camelot or Troy. There is nothing miraculous about Tell’s exploits; shooting an apple at 120 paces (since people then were much shorter than they are today, that would make about fifty yards, according to the director of the Tell-Museum in Tell’s home village of Bürglen) was well within the capacity of a skilled crossbow-man.

 The people of Uri happened in the Middle Ages, as they happen today, to be a very hard-headed conservative people, not given to flights of the imagination. What they liked, as they like today, about the story was its closeness to their familiar factual everyday world. Just as they could recognize every detail of the geography – the mountain meadows, the stormy lake --, they could recognize the chief character as one of their own, doing what they would all wish to have done as good hardy mountain-men, to save their land. Their hero was exceptionally strong and stubborn and brave. But it takes such men to survive in a hard land like Uri. Why should they bother to make up a fictitious name for him, when there were plenty of genuine names, of men well known to their grandfathers, floating all around them?

 It is true that nobody can ever know for sure if it was a man called Tell, or Thall or Thaell or Tellen, who dared to disrespect the hat of a Habsburg in Altdorf that day in 1291 or whenever. But any one who anywhere in the world today takes his stand against being kicked around by people from the other side of the mountain can be sure that William Tell, or Thall or Thaell or Tellen, is beside him.

© 2001 Robert Wernick
An abbreviaed version of this text appeared in Smithsonian Magazine,August 2004