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Swiss historians tangle with William Tell . . .

A Switzerland without William Tell? Can it be possible? A three-volume history of Switzerland that has just begun to appear in Swiss bookshops dismisses William Tell in one short paragraph.

But even the modern Swiss historians who wrote the ''History of Switzerland - and the Swiss'' could not resist the most famous man ever to come out of the Alps: Tell's powerful figure equipped with crossbow graces the cover of all three volumes.

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In legend, Tell shot an arrow through an apple perched on his little son's head, then killed the tyrant who ordered the dangerous deed. He was a star from a modest country that finds stars highly suspect.

Why put him on the cover of the new history? Guy P. Marchal answers: ''The figure is unmistakably Swiss.''

Mr. Marchal, who is responsible for the new history book's Tell period, spends much of his time in the hidden-away archives of Lucerne's dignified central library, tracing through medieval documents in pursuit of the secrets of the past.

''I can't say if Tell lived or not, but there is no proof that he did,'' Marchal explains.

Each year thousands of tourists visit the pretty village above the grand panorama of Lake Lucerne where the simple farmer is said to have lived nearly 700 years ago. They stand on the rocky outcrop where the valiant Swiss jumped from a storm-tossed boat to escape the clutches of a Hapsburg lackey. They walk along the wooded path where Tell waited to eliminate this monster with his trusty crossbow and thereby free his countrymen from foreign shackles.

Could all those Tell chocolate boxes, cheese packages, clocks, carvings, playing cards, and tea towels be wrong? What about Schiller's famous drama and Rossini's acclaimed opera?

Why, Tell guarantees Swiss quality, Swiss independence, Swiss bravery! More than 80 performances of ''William Tell'' at the Zurich Schauspielhaus during World War II helped keep a surrounded nation's spirits up! Have we been hoodwinked all these years?

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No, writes Adolf Baumann in the Zurich daily newspaper Tages Anzeiger: ''Tell is not to be dismissed so lightly! Rot to say that the Tell story is not true because it was written down much later than the actual event. The Troy saga was passed down for hundreds of years by word of mouth before it was recorded. This is usual in times when most people could not read nor write. No, we can still teach with a good conscience about William Tell in our schools!''

Marchal's arguments have been heard before, but in the skeptical '80s they have gained respectability. My neighbor's pint-sized son muttered: ''We don't really believe that apple bit.''

Though Tell is supposed to have lived at the end of the 13th century or at least at the very start of the 14th, there is no reference to such a person until 1472, more than 150 years after the alleged shot. The most probable solution, Marchal says, is that local storytellers rewrote Scandinavian sagas that were known in Switzerland at the time.

Werner Jakob, who runs the William Tell Museum, dismisses all suggestions that Tell may not have existed: ''I say to all these skeptics, can you prove he didn't live? They find that hard to answer.''

Housed in a 12th-century tower in Tell's lakeside village of Burglen, the museum draws some 15,000 tourists each summer.

''Japanese top the list of visitors now. When the last Austrian Empress, Zita , came recently, I toned down any criticism of the Hapsburgs. I didn't want to hurt her feelings,'' Mr. Jakob explained. He usually takes a shot at Tell's royal tormentors.

Though Tell's power to enthrall historians has dimmed, he still fascinates literary academia. Two Zurich teachers are producing their third book - some 850 pages in all - on Tell and his effect on literature and on Switzerland.

For years Heinrich Mettler and Heinz Lippuner have spent their nights, weekends, and holidays with Tell. Mr. Lippuner explains: ''A few years ago we conducted a seminar on Tell at Zurich University. We realized then just how much there was still to be said about Tell.''

Does he believe Tell lived? ''He certainly did not live. . . . But that doesn't matter. Mythical heroes can be more important than ones who lived.''

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