Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Legend of William Tell

Some legends are so intertwined with a Nation’s sense of pride that regardless of their veracity, they graft on to a place’s identity like a tenacious vine. For example, in Switzerland a lime tree once marked the spot where legend says William Tell’s son stood bravely as his father shot the apple from his head. Now the site is marked by a fountain, and camera laden tourists flock to pose in front of this “birth place of Swiss independence.”
 The story now known around the world was popularized by the dramatis Friedrich von Schiller in his 1804 dram Wilhelm Tell, one of the classics of the German stage. The time of the legend is the late 13th century, and its setting is the forest cantons of Uri. Schwyz and Unterwalden. For centuries the cantons had been ruled from Vienna by the monarchs of the Holy Roman Empire, whose representatives alienated the populace with autocratic, heavy handed governance. The Uri governor Hermann Gessler, was one such tyrant. He required that every last citizen salute a hat placed on a flagpole in the market place. This hat represented his authority whenever he was absent from town.
William Tell, so the legend goes, was one of the peasants who toiled in the nearby valleys- and who scorned Gessler’s rule. One day, while walking by the pole with his young son, he refused to give the mandatory salute and was quickly confronted by soldiers. The governor was alerted and brought to the market place where a crowd had formed. Tell’s young son unaware of the danger, bragged to the crowd of his father’s skill as an archer, and Gessler, seizing on an opportunity to humiliate the insubordinate, asked  Tell to demonstrate his prowess by shooting an apple off his son’s head.
Tell pleaded for another task, to no avail. Grabbing hi bow and loading it with two arrows, he warned Gessler, “if my first arrow had my dear child struck, the second arrow I had aimed at you. And assured, I should not then have missed.” Tell managed to hit the apple, but was promptly take into custody. He soon after escaped, then ultimately ambushed and killed the governor. His act was said to be the first shot of Swill independence.
Doubts began to arise over the story’s truthfulness as early as the 16th century, when the Swiss historians suggested it was probably invented in order to stir the hatred of neighboring Austrians. Historians no traced the story back to the late 15th century and say it was probably based on earlier oral traditions. The first print reference to tell occurs in four stanzas of a 1477 ballad, Song of the Origin of the Confederation; mentions are made f archery but not of Gessler, the hat, or the pole. 

1 comment:

  1. I wasn't aware of this part of history. Quite interesting and you narrated it very well...


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