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  1. Kannitvertsan
  2. William Tell and Son
  3. Palnatoke and Son
  4. King Dag Revenging a Sparrow


Once there came from Tuttlingen a German artisan to Amsterdam, this rich, commercial city full of good houses, swaying ships and busy people. A large and handsome house caught his attention, it was a house he had never yet seen the like of between Tuttlingen and Amsterdam.

For a long time the man from Tuttlingen gazed astonished at the luxurious building, the many chimneys on its glazed roof, its beautiful cornices and its tall windows, larger than the door of his father's house at home. Finally he could not refrain from addressing a passer-by,

"My good friend," he said to him, "could you tell me the name of the gentleman who owns this wonderfully beautiful house with its windows full of tulips, daisies and stocks?"

But the man he addressed just said shortly and brusquely, "Kannitverstan", and buzzed past.

Now this was Dutch for "I cannnot understand." But the man from Tuttlingen believed that it was the name of the man he had asked about. He must have been an awfully rich man, this Herr Kannitverstan, he thought and went on.

He finally came to the bay they call Het Ey. There he saw ship beside ship and mast beside mast. Finally he noticed a large ship which had just arrived from East India and was now being unloaded. Whole rows of boxes and bales were already standing on and beside one another on land. But more kept being rolled out, and barrels full of sugar and coffee, full of rice and pepper.

When he had looked for a long time, he asked a fellow who was just carrying a chest on his shoulder,

"Who is the lucky man that the ship brings all these goods to shore for?"

"Kannitverstan", he was told.

At this he thought, No wonder, a man that rich can well afford to have the house I saw too, the one with tulips in front of his windows in gilded flowerpots.

Now he went back again and got sad to think how poor he was among so many rich people. Then, as he was saying to himself, "If I had it as OK as Herr Kannitverstan only once," he turned a corner and saw a splendid funeral procession. Four horses draped in black were drawing a hearse, which was likewise draped in black. The procession walked slowly on. A long train of friends and acquaintances of the deceased followed, pair by pair, in black coats and silent. In the distance a lonely bell was tolling.

Now the man from Tuttlingen felt melancholy stealing over him, so he stood there with his hat in his hands till they all had passed by. Then he went up to the last man in the procession, gently took hold of his cloak and innocently asked.

"That must have been a good friend of yours," he said, "that you are following the procession so sadly and pensively."

"Kannitverstan!" was the reply.

At this some big tears fell from the eyes of the artisan from Tuttlingen, and he suddenly exclaimed.

"Poor Kannitverstan, what profit do you get from all your wealth now? It is what I will get from my poverty some day too: a shroud and a sheet. And from all your beautiful flowers - perhaps a sprig of rosemary on your cold chest or a rue."

With these thoughts he accompanied the corpse to the grave as if he belonged to the party, and was more moved by the Dutch funeral oration, that he did not understand a word of, than by many at home, where he paid no attention.

Finally he went away with the others with a light heart and ate a piece of Limburger cheese with a good appetite at an inn. And anytime there came sad thoughts that so many people in the world were so rich and he so poor, he brought to mind Herr Kannitverstan in Amsterdam, his great house, his rich ship and his grave.

[This modified tales takes off from the longer "Kannitverstan" by Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826).]

William Tell and Son

At a time soon after the opening of the Gotthard Pass, when the Habsburg emperors of Vienna sought to control Uri and thus control trans-Alpine trade, a new bailiff, Hermann Gessler, was despatched to Altdorf. Gessler raised a pole in the central square of Altdorf and perched his hat on the top, commanding all who passed before it to bow in respect. William Tell, a countryman from nearby Bürglen, walked past the hat without bowing and was arrested. Tell was known as a marksman with his crossbow, and now Gessler challenged him severely: He ordered him to shoot an apple off his son's head: If Tell succeeded, he would be released, but if he failed or refused, both he and his son would die.

The boy's hands were well tied. Tell put one arrow in his quiver and another in his crossbow, took aim, and shot the apple off his son's head. The impressed Gessler asked what the second arrow was for. Tell answered that if the first arrow had struck the child, the second would have been for Gessler. Gessler was enraged, had Tell arrested again and sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in Gessler's castle at Küssnacht.

During the long boat journey a violent storm arose on the lake, and Tell managed to escape at a time when the boat came close to the shore. In the stormy weather Tell jumped onto a flat rock and disappeared from the shore. On land, he found his way to Küssnacht. As Gessler and his party walked along on a dark lane there on their way to Gessler's castle, Tell shot his second arrow into Gessler's heart, and disappeared again. The ensuing rebellion that was sparkled, led to Swiss independence.

The Tell legend first appeared in the 1400s, in two versions. A Catholic historian merged these two versions into the legend retold above, in 1570. The motif of shooting a little object from one's child's head and then killing the tyrant who forced the act, is older. There is a good story from old Denmark about a similar incident - our next story.

Now, back to Tell: According to a recent survey, sixty per cent of the Swiss believe that he really lived. But historians have dared to question the popular myth that Tell and Gessler were real persons. For example, in 1760, Simeon Uriel Freudenberger from Berne anonymously published a tract arguing that the legend of Tell in all likelihood was based on the Danish saga of Palnatoke. That view is unpopular in Switzerland, where Tell is a "national hero" and identification figure in the emerged federal state. Further, a publication by Wilhelm Öchsli in 1891 clearly dismissed the story as a saga. And modern historians find no historical proofs of either Tell or Gessler. As for the uprising that was said to follow Tell's two shooting episodes, archeological evidence shows that many of its said forts were abandoned and destroyed long before 1307/08.

Palnatoke and Son

Toke Palnesen (Palnatoke, etc) was an earl of the island of Fyn in Denmark in the 900s. He is mentioned in The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus' Danish History (but not in the on-line parts) and chapter 38 of King Olaf Trygvason's Saga in The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway by Snorre Sturlason (written ca. 1225).


Palnatoke first served King Harald Bluetooth in Jelling. This Harald was called Harald the Good too. Palnatoke raised his son Sweyn Forkbeard, according to Norse customs.

Saxo tells how Palnatoke once said "after a few mugs of ale" that shooting an apple off a stick didn't show much class. King Harald Bluetooth heard of this and ordered Palnatoke to shoot an apple off of his own dear son's head. Palnatoke would only get one try. He had to obey the king's wishes. He instructed his son to stand quiet with his head high. Then he turned his son around, placed the apple on his head and plucked three arrows from his quiver. He placed one on his bow, aimed, and shot the apple from the head of his son.

The king now asked him, "Why did you take out three arrows before you shot?"

Toke answered, "The other two were to avenge my son against you in case I missed with the first".

Finally, on the peninsula of Helgenes in 991, Palnatoke shot the king through his rear when the king bent forwards "in a necessary errand" (passing feces) at dusk. The arrow came out through Harald's mouth, it is said. A horrible death!

The stories of Palnatoke of the 900s are earlier than the legend of Wilhelm Tell centuries later, and contain much similar content, then.


King Dag Revenging a Sparrow

King Dag was so wise that he understood the language of birds. He had a sparrow that told him much news, and flew to different countries.

Once the sparrow flew to Reidgotaland, to a farm called Varva, where he flew into the peasant's corn-field and took his grain. The peasant came up, took a stone, and killed the sparrow.

King Dag was ill-pleased that the sparrow did not come home. Soon he learnt what had happened to the sparrow, and went to Gotland with a great army. When he came to Varva he landed with his men and plundered. The people fled away before him, all but a slave with a hay-fork. He ran up to the king and his men as they waded across a river, and threw the hay-fork into their troop. It hit the king. He fell instantly from his horse and died.

[Chronicles of the Kings of Norway, 1:21]


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