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Karl May's Books

Karl May (1842 - 1912) is the bestselling German writer of all time, chiefly noted for his western books set in America's Old West and similar books set in the Middle East.  (He also wrote some lesser-known stories set in his native Germany, some poetry, an autobiography, a play, and dabbled in some music composition.)  Since their publication, more than 200 million copies*of Karl May's 70 books have been sold worldwide, and his works have been translated into over 40 languages.+  From these works, the characters OLD SHATTERHAND, WINNETOU�, and Kara Ben Nemsi are very famous in Germany.

Photo source http://www.cowboysindians.com/articles/archives/0999/karl_may.html

May achieved commercial success with his writing in 1875, eventually becoming something of a pop icon.  Many of his books are written as first-person accounts by the narrator-protagonist (and he sometimes claimed that he actually experienced the events he described, although usually attributed to exaggeration). 

May used many different pen names:  Capitain Ramon Diaz de la Escosura, M. Gisela, Hobble-Frank, Karl Hohenthal, D. Jam, Prinz Muhamel Lautr�amont, Ernst von Linden, P. van der L�wen, and Emma Pollmer, Richard Pl�hn.  Today, his works are published under his own name.





Map of the Wild West in 1868

This German Louis L'Amour visited North America only in 1908, well after writing the books set there, never getting west of Buffalo, New York.  This lack of direct experience of the Western milieu he successfully compensated for by an ingenious combination of creativity, imagination, and factual sources - including guide books, as well as anthropological and linguistic studies.









Geography of the American Indian Tribes

Well aware of his target audience, the ideals of decency, ethics, and values play an important role, and his "good guys" are often described as being of German descent; in addition, following the romantic ideal of the "noble savage,� his Native Americans are generally portrayed as innocent victims of white aggression, and many of them are presented as heroic characters of almost superhuman abilities.  Especially in his later works, there is a strong air of mysticism, often personified as the mysterious old woman Marah Durimeh.

In the books set in America, May invented the characters of WINNETOU�, the wise chief of the Apache tribe, and OLD SHATTERHAND, the author�s alter ego and WINNETOU�'s white blood brother.  Another very successful series of books is set in Arabia.  Here the narrating protagonist calls himself Kara Ben Nemsi (i.e., Karl, son of Germany) and travels with his local guide and servant Hadschi Halef Omar through the Arabian desert and the Near East, all the while experiencing many exciting adventures.  Both sets of books are linked not only by the common narrator, the author himself as either OLD SHATTERHAND or Kara Ben Nemsi, but also by numerous other references and shared minor characters.

The tales of WINNETOU� and OLD SHATTERHAND owe more to romantic epics than to reality, or even to American Westerns for that matter, but it's probably that very fact that makes them so popular to Germans.  (Karl May attached the prefix "Old" to the names of several of his heroes, attributing it as being typically American and illustrating the great experience of the heroes.)  OLD SHATTERHAND, the nickname derived from his capacity to knock out a person with one punch, is a young German engineer who travels out West to help with a railroad survey.  There, he meets the young Apache princeling, WINNETOU�, and promises the young Native American's dying tutor that he will look after him, thus begins a series of adventures which see SHATTERHANDand WINNETOU� try to fend off other tribes and encroaching civilization.  May's vision promoted the myth of the "noble savage," romanticizing their culture and ethics

May's works were immensely successful in continental Europe and many other parts of the world, as mentioned, translated into well over 40 different languages and selling over 200 million copies worldwide.  Still, he is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world.

Of course, one reason that Americans and other English speakers don't know anything about Karl May and his stories is the lack of English translations of his books.  Just as Karl May never saw the American West he so vividly described in his novels (the farthest west he ever got was Buffalo, New York�after his books were written), his books also failed to make it across the Atlantic to the New World, despite enjoying great success in Europe, including some non-German countries.  The few English versions of May's books that did appear were often poorly translated and difficult to read.  In the Desert, published in the U.S. in 1952, is not only a plodding, poorly written translation of May's Durch die W�ste, it is largely unfaithful to the original story in other ways.

English translation of Karl May's
Winnetou I by Michael Shaw

(Buy this book.)

But two newer English translations of Karl May novels are much more readable and closer to the German originals.  They also offer German-learners an opportunity to expand their German skills.  The German originals of these two books are available online (for free) or as inexpensive print editions.  This makes it possible for students to compare the English and German versions, learning German and gaining a better understanding of an important aspect of German culture.

English translation of Karl May's
The Oil Prince by Herbert Windolf

(Buy this book.)

Published in 2006, WINNETOU� is a new English translation by Michael Shaw of one of May's most popular tales of the American West.  It is published by Continuum International Publishing Group (ISBN: 0826418481).  The Oil Prince, published by Washington State University Press (ISBN: 0874222621) in 2003, is Herbert Windolf's translation of Karl May's adventure tale set in 1860s Arizona featuring OLD SHATTERHAND, WINNETOU�, and a perilous crook (the "Oil Prince").  Both of these new English translations are very enjoyable reading and offer people whose German isn't up to reading the originals an opportunity to enter a world of adventure known to most Germans.

Even long after his death, May has been blamed for being praised by Adolf Hitler.  This public admiration by Hitler is thought to have condemned May for some time after the war.  Actually, being an inspiration to the Nazis would have probably horrified the pacifist and idealistic May, as he spent the last 12 years of his life involved in a series of lawsuits to clear his name from a number of libelous assaults.  (These charges came after he had achieved prominence as a cultural figure and his prior conviction and imprisonment for petty theft was discovered.)  In 1953 (over 40 years after May's death), in Hitler's Table Talks by Martin Bormann, Hitler expressed his admiration of Karl May and having read May's stories as a youth.  And in the middle of World War II, May's WINNETOU� was printed in 300,000 copies to be delivered to German soldiers.  However, it should be mentioned that Karl May was significant and influential to many figures in history, as May's books are often begun as childhood reading in Germany.  Other prominent admirers of his are said to have been Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse, and Bertha von Suttner (just to name a few).  German author Carl Zuckmayer even named his daughter after the character "WINNETOU�" (although WINNETOU� is male). 


*   http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/enc1/karl_may

+   http://www.cowboysindians.com/articles/archives/0999/karl_may.html







The Three Buddies:
The Main Characters of the Westerns

Although the series is called WINNETOU�, after the young Apache chief, the immigrant SHATTERHAND is actually the main character in all books.  When he first arrives in American, because his general knowledge about the Wild West was very limited, he is referred to as "Greenhorn," but he is strong and brave and shows his courage when fighting a grizzly bear with a knife in hand.  Because SHATTERHANDis fresh from abroad and the possessor of ancient Teutonic values, he is honest and moral without being a scold, and he is untainted by the ways of the white man out in the West.  He is like Superman and the Lone Ranger, all rolled into one, and he is the ultimate immigrant success story.  He represents a way of thinking, a mind set.  The philosophy that underpins Karl May and OLD SHATTERHANDis the chivalric code of the mounted knight, a bedrock foundation for the European market.

He is older, but colorful, and knows more about the West and how to live in it than just about anybody alive.  Because he dresses in old leather skins, he looks like a hobo who may be easy-pickings, but don�t mess with him, or he�ll be behind you with his old gun "Liddy" before you can blink.  You might think of him as a Gabby Hayes-type.  Sam undertakes teaching SHATTERHANDabout life in the West.  And though he often doesn�t want to hear it, his friend SHATTERHAND, with his strength and purity, has much to teach Sam in return

Pastel by the German Artist at


He is as young as SHATTERHAND, as savvy as Sam Hawkens, and as beautiful as the animals of the prairie.  He is the noble savage, morally strong, completely incorruptible.  He is also something of a politician in trying to keep the Native Americans from fighting with each other, while he molds them to oppose the encroachment of the White Man.  He trusts SHATTERHANDLike Sam, he has much to learn from SHATTERHAND.


Related Works - Links


Link to our webpages about the films (Westerns) inspired by Karl May's books



Link to the the Karl-May-Verlag, publishing house in Bamberg and Radebeul, Germany




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Last modified: 02/04/10