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Literature: William Tell
"The most pious man can't stay in peace / If it doesn't please his evil neighbor" Click here for the original quote in German , from Friedrich Schiller's play.

Wilhelm (or William) Tell is a legendary Swiss folk hero (of questionable historicity), said to have lived in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. According to the story, his resistance to the Habsburg overlords of what is now central Switzerland served as the basis for a wider rebellion and the foundation of the Swiss Confederation.

The legend is fairly simple: In 1307, the Habsburg Duke of Austria has sent the reeve Albrecht Gessler to the canton of Uri (by the shores of Lake Lucerne), in order to strengthen his control over the region. Gessler is a ruthless authoritarian and quickly makes himself unpopular. He has his hat put up on a pole in the town of Altdorf, and decrees that all passers-by must bow before it.

One day, an alpine shepherd and expert crossbowman called Willhelm Tell comes to town with his son Walter and refuses to pay tribute to the hat. Gessler is furious and has him arrested. Hearing about Tell's marksmanship skills, he agrees to spare him and his son from the death penalty on one condition: That Tell must shoot an apple from his son's head in the town square. Tell, not having much choice, takes two bolts from his quiver and loads one before taking the shot. He succeeds, splitting the apple while leaving Walter unharmed. When Gessler askes him what the other bolt was for, Tell replies that if he had hit his son, the other bolt would have been for Gessler.

Upon hearing this, Gessler upholds his end of the bargain by not having Tell executed, but still has him bound and taken to prison for his treachery. While the party is crossing Lake Lucerne in a flimsy boat, however, a powerful storm comes up and the soldiers unbind Tell and ask him to steer for them, fearing that they will capsize. After saving Gessler and his men from drowning, Tell seizes the opportunity to escape by leaping to shore. Soon afterwards, while Gessler is travelling by land through a narrow gulley, Tell assassinates him (with his trusty crossbow, of course).

Friedrich Schiller wrote a play about him, which is Quote Overdosed (well, if you speak German, at least), and codified the version of the story best known to modern audiences.

The Trope Namer for William Telling.


Tropes featured in the story

  • Animated Adaptation: The Popeye short "Popeye Meets William Tell", although in this adaptation William's son (who was apparently a Middle Ages version of Groucho Marx) was already killed, and Popeye has to stand in for him.
  • Anti-Hero: Tell.
  • Attempted Rape: Wolfenschiessen, the imperial seneschal, tries to do that to Kuoni's wife. Luckily, Kuoni axes this. With his axe.
  • Crazy-Prepared: For the event of failure in the William Telling, Wilhelm prepares a second arrow to kill Gessler with. He actually does use this arrow to kill Gessler, but much later, since he succeeds in shooting the apple and not his son's head.
  • Eye Scream: The son of Heinrich von der Halden hits a servant of Landenberger in a disagreement over the latter taking his oxen, but manages to escape. So Landenberger captures Heinrich and puts out both of his eyes.
  • Feudal Overlord: Gessler is a reeve, a local representative of Imperial rule.
  • Folk Hero: Tell's historicity is questionable, as are the events described in the tale, but since the early modern period, he has worked his way into collective consciousness as a symbol of Swiss independence and resistance to tyranny in general.
  • The High Middle Ages: The story takes place around the turn of the 14th century.
  • How Do You Like Them Apples?: Tell shoots an apple from his son's head in one of the most iconic apple-related episodes in European folklore.
  • Improbable Aiming Skills: Tell's skill with a crossbow is his most famous attribute.
  • Kneel Before Zod: The famous William Telling incident all started because Tell refused to bow before Gessler's hat on a pole.
  • Mountain Man: Tell is generally depicted as embodying this image wholeheartedly, Badass Beard and all.
  • Nice Hat: Gessler's hat is sufficiently nice that he elevates it to the status of an idol. Either that or it's a deliberate provocation to the people of Uri.
  • Offing the Offspring: That would've happened it William/Wilhelm weren't that good of a shot.
  • Papa Wolf: Tell (quite understandably) is quite upset at the prospect of threatening his son's life. He puts a bolt aside for the purposes of killing Gessler should any harm come to Walter.
  • Save the Villain: Although it was more to save his own life, since he does assassinate said villain later in the story.
  • Weapon of Choice: Tell's is the crossbow. As an alpine herdsman, he would probably have been proficient with it for hunting purposes.
  • William Telling: The most famous episode from the legend and Trope Namer. Interestingly, Tell was not the first character to exhibit the trope in European literature and folklore. Virtually identical versions of the episode had been attributed to other heroes before him. The earliest known is the story of the archer Toko, as recounted by 13th century Danish writer Saxo Grammaticus, which also features the elements of a second arrow and the later assassination of the tyrant.


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alternative title(s): William Tell
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