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the apple and the arrow

16 may 2023

William Tell is perennially popular not just among the Swiss but among any democratic nationalists who see themselves as overthrowing foreign aristocratic rulers. The apple archer is as much a part of American lore as European, and maybe his most famous appearance was in an 1829 French grand opera by the Italian composer Rossini. Local patriots across the continent loved the Tell story in 1848 and for decades afterwards, until revolutions became a bit less about egalitarian collectives and a bit more about autocracy and fascism.

Illustrator Conrad Buff, who had scored a Newbery honor in 1947 for the virtually people-less Big Tree, written with his wife Mary, was a Swiss immigrant to the United States and the topic of Tell was an obvious one for a handsome large-scale picture book. The Apple and the Arrow was a handsomely produced large-scale volume, with several color pictures among many black and white. It won the Buffs another Newbery runner-up mention.

It's basically the opera story, plucky Swiss rising up against dastardly Austrians, the extra arrow in the belt in case he hits the kid instead of the apple. In the Buffs' book, William Tell ambushes the villain Gessler and shoots him in cold blood (60-61). Of course Gessler badly needed killing, but there is more of a confrontation in Rossini's opera and in the play by Schiller that it is based on. It may be that the ambush conforms more to received versions of the legend that predate Schiller, and that the Buffs returned to it instead of staging an operatic encounter. It also seems important for the Buffs to clarify that Gessler himself, though he serves Austrian overlords, is "not of noble blood … but a common man like ourselves" (9), as Tell's wife Hedwig says to her son Walter. I don't know why this should matter, exactly; Gessler's main character note is that he's an asshole. But there's an implication that a true nobleman wouldn't have been so vicious toward the common people he was oppressing.

The apple incident follows on William Tell refusing to bow down to the ducal hat of Austria, asking sensibly "Why should I bow to a silly hat?" (28). The detail, also included in the opera, recalls (in the context of American children's books) Dr. Seuss' 1938 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, which also connects headgear and obeisance, though in a reversed and more comical way that still gets the same message across.

One of the illustrations that might alarm a 2020s reader is one of a caged bear being baited by kids (25). But the bear-baiting is emblematic. Like Switzerland, like Tell himself, the bear is powerful but in captivity, and the Buffs' sentiments are clearly with the bear. They also include the detail of a caged eagle that fascinates Walter, another emblem of power confined in durance.

The Buffs include an anti-war message that resonates for 1951. "War means starvation and death, not only to soldiers, but to women and children too" (12), Hedwig says. Of course the Swiss people have to rise up and fight the Austrians, but hopefully a few assassinations can win them their freedom without a devastating conflict. Force in the book is distinctly OK, even if war is tragic. It's not a simple message, even if the book has a happy flag-waving ending.

Buff, Mary, and Conrad Buff. The Apple and the Arrow. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951.

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