William Tell

Sabine Baring-Gould

I suppose that most people regard the story of Tell and the apple as an historical event, and when they undertake the regular Swiss round they visit the market-place of Altorf, where the site of the lime-tree to which Tell's child was bound is pointed out to them, with the statue which is asserted to mark the spot where Tell stood to take aim. Once, indeed, there stood another monument erected near Lucerne in commemoration of this event: a wooden obelisk painted to look like granite, surmounted by a rosy-cheeked apple transfixed by a golden arrow. This gingerbread memorial of bad taste has perished, struck by lightning. I shall in the following pages demolish the very story which that erection was intended to commemorate.

It is almost too well known to need repetition.

In the year 1307, Gessler, Vogt [local governor] of the Emperor Albert of Hapsburg, set a hat on a pole as symbol of imperial power, and ordered every one who passed by to do obeisance towards it. A mountaineer of the name of Tell boldly crossed the space before it without saluting the hated symbol. By Gessler's command he was at once seized and brought before him. As Tell was known to be an expert archer, he was ordered by way of punishment to shoot an apple off the head of his own son. Finding remonstrance vain, he submitted. The apple was placed on the child's head, Tell bent his bow, the arrow sped, and apple and arrow fell to the ground together. But the Vogt noticed that Tell, before shooting, had stuck another arrow into his belt, and he enquired the reason.

'It was for you,' replied the sturdy archer. 'Had I shot my child, know that it would not have missed your heart.'

This event, it should be observed, took place in the beginning of the fourteenth century. But Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish writer of the twelfth century, tells the story of a hero of his own country, who lived in the tenth century. He relates the incident as follows:

Toki, who had for some time been in the king's service, had by his deeds, surpassing those of his comrades, made enemies by his virtues. One day, when he had drunk too much, he boasted to those who sat at table with him that his skill in archery was such that with the first shot of an arrow he could hit the smallest apple set on top of a stick at a considerable distance. His detractors, hearing this, lost no time in conveying what he had said to the king (Harald Bluetooth}. But the wickedness of this monarch soon transformed the confidence of the father to the jeopardy of the son, for he ordered the dearest pledge of his life to stand in place of the stick, and decreed that if the utterer of the boast did not at his first shot strike down the apple he should pay with his head the penalty of having made an idle boast. As soon as the boy was led forth Toki carefully admonished him to receive the whir of the arrow as calmly as possible, with attentive ears and without moving his head, lest by a slight motion of the body he should frustrate the experience of his well-tried skill. He also made him stand with his back towards him, lest he should be frightened at the sight of the arrow. Then he drew three arrows from his quiver, and the very first he shot struck the proposed mark. Toki being asked by the king why he had taken so many more arrows out of his quiver, when he was to make but one trial with his bow, replied: 'That I might avenge on thee the error of the first, by the points of the others, lest my innocence might happen to be afflicted, and thy injustice go unpunished.
The same incident is told of Egil, brother of the mythical Velundr, in the Saga of Thidrik.

In Norwegian history it also appears with variations again and again. It is told of King Olaf the Saint, who died in 1030, that, desiring the conversion of a brave heathen named Eindridi, he competed with him in various athletic sports. He swam with him, wrestled, and then shot with him. The king dared Eindridi to strike a writing-tablet from off his son's head with an arrow. Eindridi prepared to attempt the difficult shot. The king bade two men bind the eyes of the child and hold the napkin, so that he should not move when he heard the whistle of the arrow. The king aimed first, and the arrow grazed the lad's head. Eindridi then prepared to shoot, but the mother of the boy interfered, and persuaded the king to abandon this dangerous test of skill. In this version also, Eindridi is prepared to revenge himself on the king, should the child be injured.

But a closer approximation still to the Tell myth is found in the life of Hemingr, another Norse archer who was challenged by King Harald, who died in 1066. The story runs as herewith recounted.

The island was densely overgrown with wood, and the people went into the forest. The king took a spear and set it with its point in the soil, then he laid an arrow on the string and shot up into the air. The arrow turned in the air and came down upon the spear-shaft and stood up in it. Hemingr took another arrow and shot up. His was lost to sight for some time, but it came back and pierced the nick of the king's arrow ... Then the king took a knife and stuck it into an oak. He next drew his bow and planted an arrow in the haft of the knife. Thereupon Hemingr took his arrows. The king stood by him and said: 'They are all inlaid with gold, you are a capital workman.' Hemingr answered: 'They are not of my manufacture, but are presents.' He shot, and his arrow cleft the haft, and the point entered the socket of the blade.

'We must have a keener contest,' said the king, taking an arrow and flushing with anger. Then he laid the arrow on the string and drew his bow to the farthest, so that the horns were nearly brought to meet. Away flashed the arrow, and pierced a tender twig. All said that this was a most astonishing feat of dexterity. But Hemingr shot from a greater distance and split a hazel nut. All were astonished to see this. Then said the king: 'Take a nut and set it on the head of your brother Bjorn, and aim at it from precisely the same distance. If you miss the mark, then your life goes.'

Hemingr answered: 'Sire, my life is at your disposal, but I will not adventure that shot.' Then out spoke Bjorn: 'Shoot, brother, rather than die yourself.' Hemingr said 'Have you the pluck to stand quite still without shrinking?' 'I will do my best.' said Bjorn. 'Then let the king stand by,' said Hemingr,'and let him see whether I touch the nut'.

The king agreed, and bade Oddr Ufeig's son stand by Bjorn and see that the shot was fair. Hemingr then went to the spot fixed for him by the king, and signed himself with the cross, saying; 'God be my witness that I had rather die myself than injure my brother Bjorn; let all the blame rest on King Harald.'

Then Hemingr flung his spear. The spear went straight to the mark and passed between the nut and the crown of the lad, who was not in the least injured. It flew further, and stopped not till it fell ...

Years afterwards, this risk was avenged upon the hard-hearted monarch. In the battle of Stamford Bridge an arrow from a skilled archer penetrated the wind-pipe of the king, and it is supposed to have sped, observes the Saga writer, from the bow of Hemingr, then in the service of the English monarch.

The 'William Tell' story is found in different versions scattered through countries as remote as Persia and Iceland, Switzerland and Finland. This proves, I think, that it can in no way be regarded as history, but is rather one of the numerous household myths common to the whole stock of Aryan nations. Mythologists will, I suppose, consider the myth to represent the manifestation of some natural phenomena, and the individuals of the story to be impersonifications of natural forces. The Tell myth has no such immediate significance, and though it is possible that Gessler and Harald may be the power of evil and darkness, and the bold archer the storm-cloud with his arrow of lightning and his iris bow, bent against the sun, which is resting like a coin or a golden apple on the edge of the horizon, yet we have no guarantee that such an interpretation is not an overstraining of a theory.

Sabine Baring-Gould, Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (London, 1866).


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