Living for a year in Switzerland as a child, I saw and heard frequent mention of that country’s legendary hero, William Tell. Pictures of the man with the crossbow on his shoulder and his son by his side were common. I like this story a lot, because it’s a story about moral courage and emotional courage in action in spite of anger and smoldering resistance. Anger can be a great motivator, but indulging in our passionate indignation can blur our vision and our decision-making. When we storm the castle with pitchforks and flaming torches we get to vent our feelings, but it usually doesn’t get us closer to our goal. This story is literally about keeping a steady hand in spite of anger. Courage requires self-control, or else it risks being mere recklessness.
In long ago days, the forest cantons of Switzerland suffered under the dominion of the Austrian emperors, and for some time, a cruel and tyrannical governor named Gessler ruled the canton of Uri. His authority was absolute, and many of his laws were designed to bring the people shame and humiliation. In the high hill town of Altdorf he had a tall pole raised in the center square and his hat placed on top. All the people were required to show their obedience whenever they passed through the square by bowing to this hat. To avoid this, most people just found a different route through town.
Now, in the mountains outside of Altdorf lived a hunter named William Tell, said to be the best shot with a crossbow in all of Switzerland. One day, not knowing the law about Gessler’s hat, Tell came to town with his young son, and passed through the town square without saluting.
Just then, a troop of soldiers with Gessler at their head rode through the square. Seeing William Tell pass without paying respect, Gessler had him arrested for treason.
“They say that you are the best shot in the land,” the governor said when he heard William Tell’s name. “If you can shoot the mark I give you, you will go free.”
“Name the mark,” Tell replied, taking an arrow from his quiver.
Gessler smiled at Tell’s son. “Do you think your father will hit the mark I decide?”
“My father can hit anything,” the boy replied proudly.
The tyrant laughed, and told his soldiers to stand the boy against a distant tree, and place an apple on his head. Then he turned to William Tell. “If you can shoot that apple from your son’s head on the first try, you go free. If not, you both die.”
Even the soldiers were appalled by this command, but William Tell just took another arrow from his quiver and tucked it in his belt. Then, with the first arrow notched to his crossbow, he took careful aim at his son. The crowd hushed. In the silence, the arrow’s whistling flight and the thump as it hit the tree were perfectly clear. The apple fell to the ground, pierced by the arrow. The boy ran back to his father, apple in hand.
“Impressive,” said Gessler. “But what was the second arrow for?”
William Tell looked Gessler straight in the eyes. “This one was for your heart, if my shot had harmed my son.”
At that, Gessler had Tell arrested again, and taken off for execution. But William Tell escaped on the journey and made his way to Gessler’s fortress. There, Tell shot the governor with his second arrow, freeing his people from tyranny.