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The legend of William Tell is the central defining myth in Swiss national consciousness. Most schoolchildren, whether in Switzerland or elsewhere in the West, know at least the bare bones of the story, but whereas in most cultures it is little more than one folktale among many, in Switzerland, it has come to embody the very essence of Swissness.
The boy’s hands were tied. Tell put one arrow in his quiver and another in his crossbow, took aim, and shot the apple clean off his son’s head. Gessler was impressed and infuriated – and then asked what the second arrow was for. Tell looked the tyrant in the eye and replied that if the first arrow had struck the child, the second would have been for Gessler. For such impertinence, Tell was arrested and sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in the dungeons of Gessler’s castle at Küssnacht, northeast of Luzern. During the long boat journey a violent storm arose on the lake, and the oarsmen – unfamiliar with the lake – begged with Gessler to release Tell so that he could steer them to safety. Gessler acceded, and Tell cannily manoeuvred the boat close to the shore, then leapt to freedom, landing on a flat rock (the Tellsplatte) and simultaneously pushing the boat back into the stormy waters.
Determined to see his task through and use the second arrow, Tell hurried to Küssnacht. As Gessler and his party walked along on a dark lane called Hohlegasse on their way to the castle, Tell leapt out, shot a bolt into the tyrant’s heart and melted back into the woods to return to Uri. His comrades were inspired by Tell’s act of bravery to throw off the yoke of Habsburg oppression in their homeland, and to remain forever free.
With the final unification of Switzerland in 1848 after half-a-century of war, a mood of national liberation and communal purpose became crystallized around the enduring significance of William Tell, who began to be portrayed with increasing idealism, notably in the Tell monument in Altdorf, which was unveiled in 1895. Ferdinand Hodler, most famous of Swiss artists, drew directly on this monument for his seminal portrait of Tell as a godlike figure, emerging from a gap in the clouds with arm outstretched (see here) . Throughout World War II, the image and notion of a deeply moral, fervently nationalistic Tell hardened the resolve of ordinary Swiss to resist domination by Nazi Germany, and contributed to Switzerland’s self-imposed exclusion from the co-operative international organizations – specifically the United Nations and the European Union – which arose after 1945.
However, the 700th anniversary of the Confederation, celebrated in 1991, brought dissenting voices to the fore for the first time, with revisionist historians searching for more pragmatic reasons for the survival of Swiss culture than the doings of a single male hero. The annual retelling of Schiller’s drama on an open stage in touristic Interlaken (see here) to an audience increasingly made up of foreigners is, too, beginning to ring hollow, and as the millennium turns, popular perception has become increasingly cynical over the continuing appropriateness of William Tell as an icon for a 21st-century Switzerland.
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