Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Archer and the Tyrant

The father and son duo were strolling in the market place. The son tugged at the father's finger and drew his attention to the long pole and the hat placed on it.  The long pole was raised in the market place in Altdorf, Uri, Switzerland.  Albrecht Gessler, also known as Hermann, had placed his hat atop the pole and had ordered all the people of the area to to bow before it as they passed the pole. It was his way of enforcing his will and authority on the subjects of his rule.  The Harisburg bailiff had orders from his masters in Austria to compel the locals towards a rebellion so that it would pave way for the Austrian forces to occupy the areas.  The locals were seething with anger but yet complied with this humiliating order.  The atmosphere was pregnant with possibilities and now the time for action had actually arrived.

William Tell was a very strong man and originally came from Burglan, southeast of Lucerne.  He was an excellent marksman with the crossbow and was known as the best archer of his time.  His pride was as legendary as his marksmanship.  It was said he never missed the target he aimed at.  As his son drew his attention to the hat placed on the pole, his anger rose and he decided to do something about the situation.  He walked towards the pole as his son followed him.  He walked past the pole without complying with the order to bow before the hat on the pole.  Gessler's servants were aghast at the sight of a man and his little son walking past the pole without bowing before it.  Even after being reminded of the rule William Tell did not relent and publicly refused to bow before the hat on the pole.  The servants were now convinced that this was not a mistake or the act of someone not knowing the rule.  It was indeed a deliberate and provoking act.  If left without any action, others may follow suit and the very purpose of placing the hat on the pole may be defeated.  They dutifully reported the matter to Gessler.

Gessler duly arrived on the scene and ordered William Tell's arrest.  He was about to order Tell's execution when he saw Tell's crossbow.  Gessler was tempted to test Tell's skill with the bow.  He offered Tell a choice of either being executed or shoot an apple placed on his son's head from a distance in one try and be let off alive. Tell was in a quandary now.  Refusal to shoot the apple meant certain death.  An attempt to shoot the apple may endanger his little son's life.  Moreover, there was no guarantee that Gessler would really set him free even if he succeeded.  While he was debating about the options, his son made the decision.  The young boy had great faith in the marksmanship of his father and assured his father that he would stand perfectly still with the apple on his head and Tell could fearlessly shoot the apple.  William Tell finally agreed to shoot the apple placed on his son's head.

Tell and his son were led to a nearby tree as a large crowd gathered around them.  Guards kept the crowd at bay and the son was made to stand below the tree.  An apple was placed on the boy's head and the distance was measured from him for Tell to take his position with his crossbow.  Everyone waited with bated breath as Tell got ready and took aim.  The boy was standing still unmindful of the crowd and threat to his own life.  The arrow left the bow and pierced the apple placed on the boy's head!  There was a sigh of relief by the crowd and Gessler himself was flabbergast.  In one arrow Tell had saved his own life and earned his freedom.  Gessler observed that Tell had readied two arrows and asked him why he had two arrows when he was required to shoot the apple with one arrow.  Tell lied and said that it was due to force of habit.  Gessler assured Tell that he had indeed earned his freedom and he can fearlessly tell the true reason for readying two arrows.  Tell finally relented and told Gessler that the second arrow was intended for killing Gessler if any harm befell the little boy.  Enraged at this Gessler had Tell arrested again and he was taken by boat across Lake Lucerne, to Kussnacht on the northern tip of the lake to make him spend the rest of his life in a dungeon.  As luck would have it, a sudden fierce storm terrified the crew and they handed the wheel of the boat to William Tell as he was a better sailor!  William Tell maneuvered the boat skillfully and instead of heading to the dungeon he escaped to the shore and ran towards Kussnacht.  He ambushed Gessler and his men along a narrow stretch of road that cut through the rocks between Immensee and Kussnacht.  He killed Gessler with the second arrow, an arrow which met its purpose.

With this act of killing Gessler, a rebellion against Austrian rule ensued and William Tell emerged as the central figure of Swiss patriotism.  Foundations of Old Swiss Confederacy were laid.  A statue of William Tell and his son has been erected (picture of the statue given alongside downloaded from the internet) in Altdorf, Switzerland.  The legend of William Tell is recorded in a 15th century Swiss Chronicle.  There have been poems, songs and plays about William Tell and his deeds. There was a short story about William tell in our text book when we were studying in middle school. During our visit to Switzerland in 2008 we visited Lake Lucerne though we could not go to Altdorf due to bad weather.  Our host was willing to take us there despite the long distance, but I thought it fit not to venture there in pouring rain. I paid my tribute to William Tell and his little son on the banks of Lake Lucerne.

Modern historians have raised many doubts and question marks about the legend of William Tell.  As it happens so many times with historians, they do not realise that non-availability of proof of someone's existence in the past does not prove their non-existence.  Whether someone agrees or not, William Tell has been and is a hero for all freedom loving people.  Even if he was not really there.


  1. Enjoyed reading about William tell & his Son. Especially
    when he has been a legend for "all freedom loving people".

  2. Thanks for the nice narration . I had not not known this earlier.