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Myth / William Tell

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"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 
— 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. Gioachino Rossini made the legend into a four-act opera, drawing largely on Schiller's play; the most famous part of the opera is its overture, best known for its use as the theme for The Lone Ranger.


  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Despite being too proud to bow to Gessler's hat even under penalty of death, as soon as he hears Gessler's sadistic plan, all versions show Tell immediately begging the reeve not to make him do it (naturally, it does no good).
  • Attempted Rape: Wolfenschiessen, the imperial seneschal, tries to do that to Kuoni's wife. Luckily, Kuoni axes this. With his axe.
  • Be Careful What You Say: Some versions of the story have Walter be the one to brag to Gessler about his father's skill with the crossbow, which is where Gessler gets the idea for the torture that involves Walter being a human target.
  • Bound and Gagged: In some versions, including Schiller's play, Tell is bound to the pole displaying the hat he refused to bow to.
  • Bows Versus Crossbows: Tell's is the crossbow. As an alpine herdsman, he would probably have been proficient with it for hunting.
  • Children as Pawns: Gessler uses Tell's son to punish him for his defiance.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: Give Gessler some villain points for coming up with the idea of punishing Tell with a marksmanship challenge carrying the threat of maiming or killing his own son. Of course, he didn't count on Tell's Improbable Aiming Skills.
  • 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.
  • Designated Bullet: That second arrow, reserved for Gessler in case Tell accidentally hurt his son—and saved to assassinate Gessler some time later.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: One 19th century account of the legend mentions Gessler's friends in the crowd drawn by the commotion, who are so horrified by their friend's plan that even they suggest he's going too far in punishing Tell that way.
  • Evil is Petty: Ordering everyone to bow before a hat was Gessler's way of humiliating the peasants he knew objected to his rule, i.e. "you're even lower than this hat, and you will acknowledge as much."
  • 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.
  • Gone Horribly Wrong: Gessler wanted to punish Tell in a particularly cruel way for violating his law so as to set an example for all the other peasants of what would happen if they stepped out of line like him. Instead, forcing Tell to shoot at his son only made all the furious bystanders even more inclined to rebel against him.
  • The High Middle Ages: The story takes place around the turn of the 14th century.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Gessler really should have considered that, if William Tell succeeded in the archery challenge, he would turn into a Folk Hero on the spot.
  • Humble Hero: The tension of the story comes from the fact that hero truly doesn't believe he can make the shot.
  • 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.
  • Make You Watch: When Tell insists he'd rather die than risk his son's life, Gessler points out he'll just have to watch them execute his son first, meaning Walter's only chance of survival is if Tell tries to make the dangerous shot.
  • Master Archer: He was reportedly known for his skill at using crossbows. He famously successfully shot an apple on his son's head with a bolt before shooting a second one at the governor who asked him to do the first task.
  • Mountain Man: Tell is generally depicted as embodying this image wholeheartedly, beard and all.
  • Nerves of Steel: Unlike his dad, Walter truly has no doubt about his father's ability to hit the apple, and he faces the crossbow without moving or flinching one iota.
  • Offered the Crown: After the rebellion is successful, the people want William Tell to be their new king. He turns it down.
  • Offing the Offspring: That likely would've happened if William resp. Wilhelm wouldn't have been 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.
  • Person as Verb: William Telling, for shooting an apple or other small target off someone's head. (Don't Try This at Home!)
  • Sadistic Choice: Either risk killing your son, or we'll definitely kill you both.
  • Save the Villain: Although it was more to save his own life, since he does assassinate said villain later in the story.
  • Shooting Lessons From Your Parents: William Tell makes a crossbow for his son Walter, and presumably teaches him to shoot with it.
  • Tempting Apple: While it's not an object of temptation, this story continues the "apples are evil" motif common in mythology; here, it's used as part of an elaborate torture ritual.
  • Villains Never Lie: Gessler promised not to execute Tell for his defiance in refusing to bow to Gessler's hat if he was able to shoot the apple of his son's head. After Tell does so, Gessler keeps his word even after Tell bare-facedly admits he was planning to kill Gessler if he'd failed — but he does try to imprison Tell to protect himself from his crossbow bolts.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: No version explains what happened to Walter after Tell was arrested for confessing what he planned to do with the second arrow. Was he just left in the town square, or was he put on the boat to prison with his father? If the latter, what did Tell do with him during the chase through the woods before he killed Gessler? Nothing to that effect is ever mentioned.
  • 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.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Tell laughs out loud when the guards inform him he's supposed to bow before a hat.

William Tell in fiction:

  • He appears in 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.
  • He also appears in the fictional historical manga Wolfsmund as one of the leaders of the Eternal Alliance, a Swiss rebel group trying to free their lands from Hasburg rule led by the Big Bad, Bailiff Wolfram. He's also not the hero of the story as he gets killed protecting his son Walther, who's the actual hero of the story.
  • Fate/Grand Order: He appears as an Archer Servant. He is an antagonist at first because the villains brainwashed him, and he is granted the powers of Vayu, the Hindu God of Wind. Even while brainwashed, he refuses to harm children because of his love for his son, which the heroes exploit to take him down and get him on their side. He wears modern clothing and his crossbow is modernized and resembles an assault rifle; he explains a warrior should keep up with the times. His first Noble Phantasm is Apfel Schiessen: Released First Arrow of Faith, which represents the arrow he used to shoot the apple off his son's head. The arrow rewrites causality to be an Always Accurate Attack. His second Noble Phantasm is Zweite Schiessen: Unreleased Second Best Second Arrow, which represents the arrow he was saving to kill Albrecht Gessler. He is only allowed to use it if by some miracle Apfel Schiessen misses, but it is an even stronger causality-bending Always Accurate Attack.
  • The '80s series Crossbow, an action-oriented Adaptation Expansion in the vein of Robin of Sherwood.
  • The man appears in one sketch Monty Python's Flying Circus where he shoots an arrow at the apple on his son's head. In a bit of Dark Comedy, it's revealed William's son is already dead, killed by his own father for repeatedly failing to hit the apple, with the son's body covered with over a dozen arrows.

Alternative Title(s): Wilhelm Tell