William Tell: Switzer and Hong Konger, A Symbol Of The Free
Bestriding two continents, with one foot atop the European Alps and the other on the shores of Asia, stands the figure of William Tell. Swiss in origin, German by dramatic exportation, and international by the widespread application of a great and universal ideal, Tell is the liberal colossus under whose invigorating shadow the world walks free. He’s the giant in whose presence we’re made to feel not small, but quite large; the man by whose accomplishments and endeavors we’re ceaselessly inspired; the myth and the very legend at whose feet we sit in imitation and in awe. He was, in his time, a slayer of tyrants and a protector of the average man. In ours, he’s the much-needed symbol of liberty and justice for all.
Initially, though, he was a singularly national idol. Tell, before all others, was the man upon whom the Swiss people, finding themselves now wretched in the oppression of their plight, relied for deliverance from the Habsburg Empire’s avaricious clutch. An archer of nonpareil accuracy and a hero of fabulous daring, Tell shot dead the terrible and gratuitous Gessler—the Habsburg Empire’s regrettable gubernatorial choice. Gessler, you see, was the man—painfully ill-fit for the job, probably a fact unbeknownst to the slightly more benevolent Austrian king—under whom Tell’s Canton was to be administered.
Contemptuous of the people’s long-cherished liberty and desirous of his own veneration as a European god, Gessler impressed upon the people’s throat his unrelenting heel. He forced upon them countless indignities and personal affronts. He imposed upon them shameful rites of passage and embarrassing procedures to which they were compelled to conform. A vigorous and an independent people, these patriots of Switzerland were made to genuflect before the governor’s royal cap. A pole was stuck in the earth upon which this symbol of despotism would flap before their eyes. All were made to acknowledge and to kneel before it, as if it were an emblem of the messiah and sacrosanct. Failure to do so would be a capital crime. If not that, Gessler would punish them in whatever way that he pleased. Such is the will of a tyrant. As callous as he was capricious, interminable imprisonment (without hope of release) wasn’t an unusual sentence. Nor, of course, was that of a torturous and ignoble death.
Tell faced both. Somewhat disingenuously, he ignored the legally-required acknowledgement of the governor’s cap. Abstemious of even the thought of servility and defiantly proud of his unfettered pedigree in every way, he walked past the cap without a second thought. For his troubles (and for being so insufferably troublesome), he was detained by the imperial guard. It was a body from which there was no escape. Failing to feign ignorance of the newfangled law, Tell was then brought before the governor and apprehended without trial.
The puissance of his bow and the accuracy of his aim weren’t solely the plaudits of his neighbors; Gessler knew of this formidable gift as well. Desirous of some evidence or validation for the claim, Gessler forced him to shoot—from a distance of over one hundred yards—an apple from his young son’s head. Desperate for a reprieve, Tell presented to the sanguinary governor his own beating chest. Barren of all humility and pride, he was willing to sacrifice his own life, if only to preserve that of his son. Gessler was unmoved. He insisted upon the proceeding as dictated before.
Tell’s son, with insouciant, confident, and hortatory pleas, urged his father to take his shot. Withholding one arrow in the case he should fail, the infallible Tell did just that. The apple, now cut through the core and bifurcated in two, tumbled down to the merciful earth. The reserved arrow, an admission made upon Gessler’s inquiry, was destined for the governor’s head. Had his son been slain, Gessler’s fate would’ve matched.
Piqued by so impudent an admission of infidelity to his reign, Gessler ordered Tell be taken away. He was stripped of his bow, detached from the embrace of his son, made into a formal prisoner, and carried away from the Canton of which he was now, inarguably, the most eminent man. He was chained to a boat and brought across Lake Lucerne—a stunningly picturesque body of water around which those glorious mountains climb. Desperate for the intervention of a providential or a mortal hand, the boat encountered a terrible storm. This divine tempest, made all the more powerful by Tell’s own cunning, was able to spring the man free.
Unfettered of his chains but bound to his commitment for vengeance, he stole away to those glorious, inconspicuous hills. He found himself in a set of mountains behind whose jagged angles and daunting crags he might be concealed. This was an altitude, after all, with which he was intimately familiar—having inhabited it for the entirety of his life.
Patiently, he awaited the caravan of the governor to arrive. It did so through a discouragingly narrow mountain pass. The governor’s henchmen advised an alternative route, but Gessler was resolute. Just then, a woman and her children, indigent and desperate for her husband’s reprieve, begged the governor to see to his case. She supplicated the insensate Gessler, but succeeded in moving his sentiments not. Just before he could trample her dead, if only to disburden himself of her cries and continue on his merry way, he himself fell to the ground. This was no paroxysm, internal though it seemed. Branching from the felled noble’s head was a wood-carved arrow—a projectile for whose release none other than our heroic Tell was to be named responsible.
This display of utmost temerity, this intrepid assassination of a government official, this incalculable act of risk—all of this combined to guarantee forever the preservation of the Canton’s liberty. Forevermore, its people would be free, as they forever had been up until that time. This genuine race of ancient Swiss had “kept their freedom from the first till now. Never to princes had they bowed the knee”—and, thanks to the efforts of Tell, never would they do so again. They would shake off from their shoulders a thralldom so acutely abhorred and keep for themselves and their posterity their ancient and inviolable right. They would be free.
This arousing message, this liberal sentiment, this shout from the lungs of every person who breathes free is as relevant today as it was in age of Tell. His story, forever abiding, speaks to me with particular force and acuity as I watch from afar the situation occurring in Hong Kong. The citizens of this Westernized, quasi-autonomous state are being led to the yoke of the Chinese machine. The autocrats of that speciously “emerging” state are leading Hong Kongers from the liberty that they love to the foreign servility of Beijing. For weeks, at this point nearly three months, Hong Kong’s citizens—a people to whom no right is of greater moment than that of its untrammeled freedom—have been demonstrating in the streets. Tumultuous would be too mild a term to describe the circumstances in which this all has taken place; perilous is the situation as it continues to unfold.
When—it’s asked in the play by Friedrich Schiller by which we remember the tale of William Tell—will come deliverance from this doom-devoted land? Probably, sad though I am to say, not exceedingly soon. Although Carrie Lamb, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has rescinded from the government’s agenda the proposed extradition bill—the piece of legislation by which these fourteen vigorous weeks of protests were originally incited—its permanent removal seems unlikely. We here in the west, complacent with the pettiness of our own concerns, should be aware of the fact that it’ll surely re-appear. Possibly, as if a sanguinary sequel to that event at Tiananmen decades ago, it might do so with Chinese military force—the exertion of which is enough to make the entire region tremble.
Until then, we mustn’t neglect our Hong Kong neighbors (if they aren’t so by geography, they doubtless are by ideology). We must attend to their calls for liberty, as did the valiant Switzer William Tell. China’s thralldom now weighs the Hong Kongers down. The former seeks to impoverish the latter, to swell her lust of sway. Hong Kong must combat her influence and remain forever free.