William Tell

William Tell: Swiss symbol of resistance

The legend of William Tell, the Swiss answer to Robin Hood, is retold throughout Switzerland, but it receives its most spectacular airing at Interlaken, the beautifully situated travel hub of the Alps. The city of William Tell, Altorf, is far just 2 hours and in the center of the town square stands the heroic bronze figure of Tell. In an open-air theater outside Interlaken, surrounded by lush forests and mountain scenery, the play William Tell by Friedrich Schiller has been performed every summer since 1912, with 180 actors, 20 live horses, and a herd of cows on stage to provide rustic flavor. It’s the ideal setting to enjoy a story that dates back to the Middle Ages, when Switzerland was ruled by arrogant Austrian invaders.

The people of Switzerland were not always free and happy as they are today. Many years ago a proud tyrant, whose name was Gessler, ruled over them, and made their lot a bitter one indeed. One day this tyrant set up a tall pole in the public square, and put his own cap on the top of it; and then he gave orders that every man who came into the town should bow down before it. But there was one man, named William Tell, who would not do this. He stood up straight with folded arms, and laughed at the swinging cap. He would not even bow down to Gessler himself. When Gessler heard of this, he was very angry. He was afraid that other men would disobey, and that soon the whole country would rebel against him. So he made up his mind to punish the bold man.

William Tell’s home was among the mountains, and he was a famous hunter. No one in all the land could shoot with bow and arrow so well as he. Gessler knew this, and so he thought of a cruel plan to make the hunter’s own skill bring him to grief. He ordered that Tell’s little boy should be made to stand up in the public square with an apple on his head; and then he bade Tell shoot the apple with one of his arrows. Tell begged the tyrant not to have him make this test of his skill. What if the boy should move? What if the bowman’s hand should tremble? What if the arrow should not carry true?

“Will you make me kill my boy?” he said. “Say no more,” said Gessler. “You must hit the apple with your one arrow. If you fail, my soldiers shall kill the boy before your eyes.” Then, without another word, Tell fitted the arrow to his bow. He took aim, and let it fly. The boy stood firm and still. He was not afraid, for he had all faith in his father’s skill. The arrow whistled through the air. It struck the apple fairly in the center, and carried it away. The people who saw it shouted with joy. As Tell was turning away from the place, an arrow which he had hidden under his coat dropped to the ground. “Fellow!” cried Gessler, “what mean you with this second arrow?” “Tyrant!” was Tell’s proud answer, “this arrow was for your heart if I had hurt my child.”

And there is an old story, that, not long after this, Tell did shoot the tyrant with one of his arrows; and thus he set his country free.

Over the centuries, William Tell has become a Swiss symbol of resistance to oppression, and his story has inspired dozens of retellings by European authors, with the 1804 Schiller play the most popular. Tell’s story is cherished by the Swiss and central to their sense of origins, witness the image of Tell’s crossbow stamped on every item of export that passes Switzerland’s borders, as proof that it is truly made in Switzerland. There is just one small problem: many historians doubt that Tell ever made those two famous arrow shots in 1307, and many are convinced that no such person as William Tell ever existed.

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