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William Tell: The Hero of Swiss Folklore

Willliam Tell is one of the most popular and well-known characters in medieval mythology. He is known as a national hero to the people of Switzerland. He is considered to have played a strong role in the development of Switzerland as an independent state. Many artists have composed poems and songs about Willliam Tell. However, there is considerable doubt among researchers whether there really was someone with this name, but it does not matter to the common people.

William Tell: The Hero of Swiss Folklore
William Tell: The Hero of Swiss Folklore

In 1734-36 AD, the Swiss historian Gilg Tschudi (Gilg Tschudi) presented the story of Willliam Tell in one of his books (Chronicon Helveticum). He refers to the tale as a historical character and mentions that his story dates back to 1307 AD.

The Story of Willliam Tell

Once upon a time there was no separate country called Switzerland. The great powers of the neighbourhood controlled them. One of such power was Habsburg-ruled Austria. Under them, Switzerland was divided into three main administrative regions or cantons: Uri, Suez and Unterwalden.

At the time in question, a man named Albrecht Gessler ruled Switzerland on behalf of the Austrians. His center was at Altdorf in Uri. Arrogant and tyrannical, Gessler did not treat the Swiss as human beings. He hangs his hat on a big pole in the main square of the city. The order was that upon entering the city, every Swiss must bow before the hat and bow to the cornice.

One day a Swiss came down from the mountains, his name was Willliam Tell. He was well known for his skill in archery and sailing. Many said he was involved with the rebels to overthrow Gessler. In any case, Willliam Tell refused to bow to Gessler's hat.

When Gesler heard this, he was furious. The Austrian ruler realized that if Tell was not properly punished, people would soon begin to ridicule him, thereby loosening the reins of power. Tell had a reputation as an archer, so Gessler took aim. He sent the pike-pedestrians to catch Tell and his son, and announced that he would be freed only if he could throw an arrow at the apple of his son's head.

On a certain day, Tell's son was made to stand in the town square with an apple on his head. Gessler said - he will get a chance to shoot only one arrow, if he is not successful, the death of both of them is sure. Willliam Tell urged Gessler several times not to play this cruel game, but Gessler did not listen to him. As a result, he raised his crossbow and shot an arrow, blowing the apple of Gessler, as he had promised, let Tell and his son go. As they were leaving, an arrow slipped from behind Tell's cloak. Gessler became curious, what was the purpose of the second arrow? Tell bluntly replied that if he had accidentally killed the boy with the first arrow, he would have used the second arrow on Gessler.

And go where! Gessler is angry fire! Tell was immediately arrested. He was put in chains on a boat, destined to be taken to prison at Küssnacht Castle. As the boat was sailing on Lake Lucerne, a sudden storm broke out. Tell was also popularly known as a skilled sailor, so the guards freed him to escape.  the boy's head.

Tell took the opportunity with both hands. He quickly drove the boat to the shore. Tails slashed with his bow as the guards tumbled back and forth. The place where he beached the boat became known as 'Tellsplatte' ( Tellsplatte / Tell's ledge).

Gessler himself was on his way to Kushnakht Fort. Tail hid behind a tree on the road, waiting for him to appear. As soon as he saw Gessler, he shot him with an arrow and killed him.

It is said that Tell then met with the leading Swiss men of the three cantons and urged them to start a rebellion against Austria. They all took an oath of independence in the Rütli Forest, although most researchers consider it to be folklore. People say that the time of this oath is 1307 AD. It is through this that the foundation of independent Switzerland was created, the Swiss Confederation was established. 

Legend has it that after driving out the Austrians, the people asked Tell to become king, but he politely declined the offer. Returned to his quiet abode on the hill.

History is just a fable

Research has shown that many medieval writers have recounted the story of Willliam Tell, but their events vary greatly in time and place. As mentioned earlier, the character of Willliam Tell is first found in a story from 1482 AD, which places his events in 1296 AD. As such, about 186 years have passed since Tell's feat. If he is really a historical character, then why no one else spoke about him for once in a long time? and why there is no mention of a ruler like Gessler in any records?

It was Shudi who first told the full story of the tale, that too in 1569-70 AD. It is here that he first dates the event to 1307 AD, although earlier stories have given the tale as older. He is believed to have done this to coincide with the legendary oath of Rutley Forest. The main objective was to have a hero stand as a symbol of Swiss independence. However, there is much debate as to how historic this Rutley oath is. A copy of Rutley's Oath is said to have been made public in 1758 AD, although no one has been able to prove its authenticity. But interestingly, William Tell was not mentioned among the signatories of this paper.

Many refer to John of Winterthur to research the tale. His writings are considered fairly reliable among medieval historians. The Swiss defeated the Austrians at the Battle of Morgarten in 1315 AD, their first major victory against the invaders. While Winterheer was alive at the time, his father also took part in the war. If someone like Tell stood up to the Austrians in 1308 AD and led a rebellion against them, he should have known better. But there is no mention of it anywhere in his writings.

A historian named Guilman claimed in an essay published in 1598 AD that William Tell's entire story was fabricated. But he again stands against denying this story for popularity. It may have been a wise decision, as legend has it that a Swiss man named Uriel Freuden was burned at the stake in 1760 AD for claiming that the tale was imported from Denmark.

But Uriel wasn't so wrong. The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus mentions a man called Palnatoki in the 10th century. Palnatoki, who lived on the island of Finn, was the bodyguard of the Danish king Harold. Once he boasted that he had no equal in archery. The king organised the test, the apple was placed on the head of son of Palnatoki and made to stand at a distance. Palnatoki was able to target very naturally. The similarity to the Tale is striking, and the Danish story predates the Tale.

A researcher published an incident mentioned in Danish history in the 18th century. King Harold is also the villain of his story. Harold is a historical figure, ruling Denmark from 936-987 AD. One of his viking commanders, Toko, got drunk one night and talked a lot about his archery skills, and he put Toko's son on the head with an apple. What happened next is exactly like William Tell.

It was around this time that historian de Haller wrote a book documenting William Tell as a Danish fairy tale. The mob was furious with him, and a case was filed in the court. Haller's book was publicly burned, and the author was forced to apologize.

Although not quite the same, tales similar to the tale are found in the folklore of England, Finland, Russia, Iran, and even India. But whatever the truth, William Tell's place in the minds of the common people of Switzerland remains undisturbed.

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