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An apple, an arrow, and Swiss freedom

By Betty LowryContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / March 24, 2004


William Tell was an unlikely hero. When he and his small son walked from Bürglen to Altdorf, they never imagined they would galvanize the idea of a free Switzerland. In fact, father and son went right by the pole with the hat on top. Who would expect Hermann Gessler, Austria's autocratic man in charge of Switzerland, to demand that people bow to his hat?

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Gessler took Tell's lack of obsequiousness personally, of course. Either execution on the spot, he declared, or the bumpkin with the crossbow could try to shoot an apple off his son's head. Reluctantly Tell drew his bow, then neatly split the apple with his arrow.

Annoyed, Gessler mocked him: Why did he carry a second arrow since one would suffice? Tell replied that if the first arrow had harmed his son, he would have aimed the second one at Gessler, adding, "I would not have missed."

The defiant words are actually those of German poet/dramatist Friedrich von Schiller, and without him this might have been just another heroic legend. But Schiller's play, "William Tell," was a resounding success, and the tale went around the world.

A celebration of 'William Tell'

The play had its première 200 years ago in Weimar, Germany. But in Switzerland - especially in the cantons around Lake Lucerne - the playwright and his "William Tell" are being widely honored.

The German National Theatre Weimar will travel to Switzerland to present the Lukas Leuenberger production of Schiller's masterpiece as part of Kulturschweiz 2004 and its theme, "200 Years of 'William Tell.' " The performance outdoors in Rütli Meadow, historic site of Swiss independence, will be the high point in a summer of special events.

At Interlaken's Rugen Wood, the play will be staged for the 92nd season as a cultural pageant with a cast of 185 in the William Tell Open-Air Theater. In medieval Altdorf, the Tell Play & Theater Association will do a new and contemporary interpretation in the Tell Theatre (Tellspielhaus), which was built in 1899 solely to present the saga.

Rütli Meadow is more than a venue. Here on Aug. 1, 1291, men from the forest cantons of Schwyz, Uri, and Unterwalden formed the "Everlasting League," swearing never again to be ruled by a foreign power.

Today, Rütli belongs to Swiss schoolchildren, who collected money to save it from developers, and is the center of Confederation Day celebrated each Aug. 1.

Because the Swiss officially declared their freedom on Jan. 1, 1308, Schiller, outspoken lover of liberty, called his play "A New Year's Gift to the World."

Yet Schiller never set foot in Switzerland. Instead, he heard the tale in Weimar from his friend and colleague Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who had visited. Like Goethe, Schiller thrilled to the story, though he had to ask his publisher for a map of Lake Lucerne and environs.

Tell's deed did not end with the apple. The enraged Gessler ordered him arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in the dungeon of his castle at Küssnacht. But the boat carrying the prisoner was soon engulfed in a storm, and the frightened boatmen released Tell (who providentially was also an expert pilot) to steer them to shore. Once there, he leapt to safety on a rock, pushed the boat back into the raging water, and escaped through the forest. It was only a matter of time until he intercepted Gessler in a gully and dispatched the evil tyrant with that extra arrow.

Is it a legend or truth?

If this story seems a bit of a stretch, never mind. The end of Gessler was the first step to throwing out the Hapsburgs - and of Swiss freedom. A bronze statue of Tell and his son dominates the town square in Altdorf, and the crossbow is the trademark of Switzerland.