The Making of "She Swears an Oath"
Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for the story “She Swears An Oath”. I recommend that you read the full story before proceeding.
William Tell probably did not exist. Much like other similar heroes of folklore, he was grafted onto existing stories at some point undetermined. He joins the ranks of other lesser-known Germanic heroes forced to shoot apples from the heads of their sons, such as Palnatoke and Egil, who each likewise kept back additional arrows to use against the tyrant in the event that they missed their first shot. His late arrival into the story of the Old Swiss Confederacy illustrates itself in that the oldest known story of the Rütli Oath mentions only three confederates, who later came to be referred to in Swiss legend as “The Three Tells.”
I imagine that if you asked most non-Swiss people to relate the story of William Tell, they would produce some version of the apple-shooting scene, but not much more. This made the construction of “She Swears An Oath” rather difficult, since the incident occurs almost at the beginning of Tell’s part in the complete tale of the events leading up to the Rütli Oath. Wishing to keep the reader in the dark as to the name of the character whose legend I was retelling in this particular story, I was forced to keep back the apple shot until the end—and thus to drastically rearrange the entire narrative. Fortunately, the tale of William Tell offers plenty of other gripping and action-filled moments with which to experiment.
Tell (particularly as portrayed in Friedrich Schiller’s play) matches the Unnamed Heroine in several respects: unnaturally strong, a highly skilled archer, prone to violent methods, and possessed of a strong sense of justice but reluctant to ally himself with others. I have amplified this last trait, but where Schiller’s Tell only asserts his belief in the superiority of self-reliance, the Unnamed Heroine maintains her separation for less ideological reasons, only joining the three confederates in their oath when her assassination of their oppressor has made continued anonymity impossible.
Most of the names, places, and events of this story come straight from the legends, but when I considered the identity of Tell’s son, I had to diverge. For reasons of my own, I did not want Walter to be her biological child; thus, the story required an explanation of how she came to be his caregiver. As an nearly indestructible and unbeatable warrior, she rarely has any motivation to avoid a fight or accept abuse from anyone, so giving her a child to protect—and one who has already experienced severe trauma—introduced an element of internal conflict beyond the usual stark narrative of William Tell’s exploits.
In contrast to my approach in “She Names a Nation,” I did not change the gender of the original character, opting instead to have her pass for a man. This fact, especially considered in light of the conversation she and Walter have on the way into town, may give the reader some cause to speculate about the Unnamed Heroine’s actual gender identity. On that score, I prefer to remain silent.
Disclaimer: I am only a writer, not a historian, even an amateur one. If any of my readers can tell that I have mangled the facts and wish to point me toward better research, I encourage you to contact me.