(William). The boldest of the Swiss mountaineers. The
daughter of Leuthold having been insulted by an emissary of Albrecht
Gessler, the enraged father killed the ruffian and fled. William Tell
carried the assassin across the lake, and greatly incensed the
tyrannical governor. The people rising in rebellion, Gessler put to
death Melchtal, the patriarch of the district, and, placing the ducal
cap of Austria on a pole, commanded the people to bow down before it in
reverence. Tell refused to do so, whereupon Gessler imposed on him the
task of shooting an apple from his little boy's head. Tell succeeded in
this perilous trial of skill, but, letting fall a concealed arrow, was
asked with what object he had secreted it. “To kill thee, O tyrant,” he
replied, “if I had failed in the task imposed on me.” Gessler now
ordered the bold mountaineer to be put in chains and carried across the
lake to Küssnacht Castle “to be devoured alive by reptiles,” but, being
rescued by the peasantry, he shot Gessler and liberated his country. (
Kissling's monument at Altorf (1892) has four reliefs on the pedestal: (1) Tell shooting the apple; (2) Tell's leap from the boat; (3) Gessler's death; and (4) Tell's death at Schachenbach.
(1) Egil, the brother of Wayland Smith. One day King Nidung commanded him to shoot an apple off the head of his son. Egil took two arrows from his quiver, the straightest and sharpest he could find. When asked by the king why he took two arrows, the god-archer replied, as the Swiss peasant to Gessler, “To shoot thee, tyrant, with the second if the first one fails.”
(2) Saxo Grammaticus tells nearly the same story respecting Toki, who killed Harald.
(3) Reginald Scot says, “Puncher shot a pennie on his son's head, and made ready another arrow to have slain the Duke Remgrave, who commanded it.” (1584.)
(4) Similar tales are told of Adam Bell, Clym of the Clough, William of Cloudeslie and Henry IV., Olaf and Eindridi, etc.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894
More on Tell from Fact Monster: