Fangirl Fridays – Karl May

How I Met the Wild, Wild West


“Inventing a world is the essence of being a writer.”
~ Karl May

Please don’t laugh, I have a tender spot in my heart and mind for this author and his Winnetou series.

You might never have heard of Karl May (rhymes with why), but this German Author is responsible for my infatuation with the old Wild American West stories and myth. I read his stories when I was in high school, and they were my first encounter with the American Frontier.

I don’t drink firewater, rarely wear turquoise jewelry or feathers in my hair, and my experience with gun shooting is limited, but I do love the stories. Growing up, I read tons of books about that era and watched a fair number of classic Western movies. It might surprise you to know that Karl May is responsible for me watching all this and more:

You might recognize a few of these!

Though the novels I loved were set in the Wild, Wild West, he also wrote about the Orient and the Middle East. He presented his writings as travel literature based on his experiences. He was, in fact, an armchair fantasist—his “experience” at that time was based on books he had read and a highly imaginative mind.

I admire authors who can transport me so completely outside the boundaries of my own little world that I become immersed in their fantasy realms. His western tales became every bit as real as my own world to me. After the jump, I’ll tell you a little about this amazing author and the stories he created.

Karl Friedrich May (25 February 1842 – 30 March 1912) had a colorful life. His family was very poor, there was poverty and even hunger at his home. Apart from school studies, his father had some rough educational methods at home. After school, he was forced to spend hours copying text from the encyclopedias, prayer books, and stories about nature that his father had gathered for him. If he failed to complete his allotted work in time, he would get a whipping with a birch switch.

Doesn’t look much like
a cowboy, does he?
As a young man, he started a teaching career, apparently together with a career of theft and fraud. He lost his teaching job due to a theft conviction, and spent a few years in prison, which became his second significant source of education (after his father’s methods). He was sent to work in the prison library. That library contained 4,000 books, inspiring young Karl, who read a lot there, to fashion a future for himself as a writer. He had barely been released before resuming his lifestyle of deception and fraud. When the police arrested him again, he told them his name was Albin Wadenbach, the son of a plantation owner from Martinique. (I am glad he finally steered that lively imagination of his into writing!)

He began writing after his release from prison in May 1874, returning to his parents’ home. He managed to make a modest living writing pulp fiction. In 1892, May began writing two series, called Travel Novels. He added to them through the 1890s and beyond; by the time of his death, the collection had 32 volumes.

Still not looking
very Wild West-ish.
Writing and publishing the Winnetou and Old Shatterhand novels became his biggest break. May suffered through considerable hardships in his later years. His criminal record came back to haunt him when he went to court in an attempt to keep his own publishing rights and prevent the unauthorized alteration of his novels. But he persevered. Just a few days before his death in 1912, he gave a lecture in Vienna about his life and work before an enthusiastic audience of 2000 fans.

Many decades later, I was captivated by Karl May’s Winnetou stories, galloping towards the sunset with Winnetou himself. His books were my initiation to a new world―of Indians and Cowboys, great warriors and noble gunmen...thousands of miles away from where the author or I lived.

His Characters

Karl May created idealistic archetypal characters, struggling for loyalty, dignity, friendship, love, and peace. There was the Native American Chief Winnetou, or “The Red Gentleman”, as he was called, The idea of a “Noble Savage” was popular at the time. There was Winnetou’s German brother Old Shatterhand, who was really May’s alter ego. Here are descriptions of his most famous characters from the Karl May USA website.

Old Shatterhand
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 Shatterhand is 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 Shatterhand is the chivalric code of the mounted knight, a bedrock foundation for the European market.

1904 image of Winnetou by
Jugendstil artist Sascha Schneider.
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 Shatterhand. Like Sam, he has much to learn from Shatterhand.

Sam Hawkens
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 Shatterhand about 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.

His Books

These descriptions of the books, which romanticize the Old West in a naïve and ideological way, are taken from the Nemsi Book Publishing Company, "The Home of Real Adventure Tales":

Winnetou 1
One blow to the temple with his fist brought Rattler to the ground unconscious, and earned him the name, ‘Old Shatterhand’. The name stuck. From that day on he was Old Shatterhand to all but the wily frontiersman Sam Hawkens, his friend and mentor who just couldn’t bear to give up calling him a Greenhorn.

Fate took the young immigrant teacher from a comfortable tutoring position in St. Louis to a survey job for the railroad between the Rio Pecos and Canadian Rivers in New Mexico. It was there that the inborn instincts of a true frontiersman could harness his mighty physical strength, his unerring marksmanship, and total fearlessness in the face of danger or even imminent death.

Facing down a charging bull buffalo with only a pair of pistols, or tangling with a mighty grizzly with his Bowie knife was one thing. But fulfilling Klekih – Petra’s dying request to befriend and watch over Winnetou was quite another. They were surveying on Apache territory without permission, and now that a drunken Rattler had senselessly shot the ‘White Father’ and teacher of the Apache nation, they were mortal enemies.

Both men admitted later on that the first look into one another’s eyes had stirred a sense of admiration. Now it seemed all but hopeless. But to Old Shatterhand, a promise made is a promise kept. He would not give up until it was done, no matter what the cost.

Hair-raising adventure spiced with the acid humor of the wry Sam Hawkens leaves room for the high moral values of both Winnetou and Old Shatterhand in the fight of good against evil, and a life-long blood brotherhood between the two men.

Winnetou 2
“Now revenge drives me away from you,” Winnetou had said, “but affection will bring us together again.”

But would it? Would Winnetou succeed in finding Santer and avenging the murders of his father Intshu–tshuna and his beautiful sister Nsho–tshi? Would the two blood brothers ever meet again in that vast, raw land?

it seemed an outside chance at best and now Old Shatterhand, on his way to his homeland to visit his parents was shipwrecked in a violent hurricane on the jagged rocks just off Fort Jefferson leaving him with nothing but his life. This now was all but impossible.

Not wanting to be a burden to his friends back in St. Louis, Old Shatterhand opted to make his own fresh start, to get back on his feet. Where better than in New York, to where the people of Fort Jefferson had arranged free passage for him?

The book bristles with action and hair-raising adventure from a death-defying rescue through the flames of an oil fire in the New Venango oil fields to the Comanche slaughter at the hands of the Apache under the mighty Winnetou, finally standing shoulder to shoulder with the giant, Old Firehand against the white chief Parranoh and his Ponca tribe.

I found this movie program listed on eBay.

The tables are turned on Old Shatterhand and Winnetou when the trader to whom they are seeking to sell Old Firehand’s furs, turns out to be none other than the evil and elusive Santer. Winnetou 3
This book is the final part of the Winnetou trilogy. It is a fascinating look at the Wild West, seen through the eyes of a unique author who made it his mission to hold up a mirror so that we might see ourselves and realize who we are.
Winnetou, the Apache Chief, who sacrificed his life for the sake of white settlers, is another symbolic reminder that we all live and die upon this one earth we all share. What good is war and killing? What good is greed and avarice? In the end, we must all depart this world with empty pockets, leaving but a memory of who we once were.”

His Later Life and Legacy

How’s this for “Cowboy”?
Karl May identified fully with the character who represented his alter ego, Old Shatterhand. He even named his house “Villa Shatterhand”.

He posed for photos as Old Shatterhand, like the one here, and requested that a rifle maker in Dresden create copies for him of the most famous weapons from his books, to hang on his house walls. He was on top of the world.

Then his lies caught up with him, the lies about his past, his fake travels and doctorate, his criminal record. The legal battles lasted almost 10 years and May sunk into depression, affecting his health and his writing. He was redeemed in 1911, by the chief justice on the Berlin District Court, who said:
“I consider Karl May to be a poet.”

German literary critics dismiss his work as second-rate. Yet, Karl May has become the best-selling German author of all time! The Karl May press in Bamberg claims over 100 million copies sold worldwide, and almost all German children and adults read Karl May’s books. There are popular Karl May festivals across Germany every summer, where people dress up like cowboys and Indians and hang out in teepees with various “cowboy clubs”.

In Germany, Karl May Fest 2010 in Bad Segeberg
had a hugely successful season.

Albert Einstein was a big fan of his stories: My whole adolescence stood under his sign. Indeed, even today, he has been dear to me in many a desperate hour…”

So was Albert Schweitzer: “What I liked most in his writings was the courageous stand for peace and mutual understanding, which inspires nearly all his books…”

Some researchers claim that May was mentally ill and suffered from a narcissistic personality disorder. Once, when he was invited to an audience at the court in Vienna, he had his assistant inquire whether he was to appear as a “cowboy” or an author. The archduchess chose the latter. Someone once knocked on his door and asked for a strand of Winnetou’s hair. The visitor was overjoyed when the author sent him on his way with a handful of black horsehair.

But I don’t care at all. For me, his works remain adventure literature, driven by the author’s desire to dream his way “out of the box”, introducing places and images his readers had only heard about.

A few years before his death on March 30, 1912, he finally made the trip to America. May visited New York, Boston, and Niagara Falls. The highlight of his journey was a visit to the reservation that was home for 400 descendants of the once-powerful Tuscarora people, one of the nations of the Iroquois tribes.

Between 1912 and 1968, German cinema screened 23 movies based loosely upon novels by Karl May. American actor Lex Barker (aka Tarzan) is best known in Germany for his role as “Old Shatterhand” in several Italian-German “spaghetti westerns” of the 1960s. The role of the Indian Winnetou was played by a Frenchman, actor Pierre Brice.

From the German "Winnetou" Euro Westerns, based on books written by German author Karl May. Winnetou is played by Pierre Brice and Old Shatterhand is played by Lex Barker.

Actor Pierre Brice as Winnetou, on right,actress on the left is Uschi Glas.

May’s Winnetou book was translated to English in 1999 by David Koblick; his Oil Prince book was translated in 2003 by Herbert Windolf. From Nov. 18, 2012, to Feb. 9, 2014, the New Mexico History Museum is celebrating his life, legacy, and lasting impact in Tall Tales of the Wild West: The Stories of Karl May.

Oh, he also has an asteroid named in his honor: Asteroid 15728 Karlmay.

Well, dear readers, my tiny journey into the past is at an end now. I hope you enjoyed it. I am curious whether any of you have ever heard about Karl May.

Copy of his manuscript located at the Karl-May-Museum Radebeul.


  1. As a lifelong U.S. citizen, I find it fascinating that you learned all about our old west from an author whom I (and probably most people I know) have never heard of! (And an author who had never been here!) What about Louis L'amour and Zane Grey, did you read any of their books? I didn't, I just liked to watch Western movies and tv series, but I sure loved them. I lived in Arizona for a while years ago and was fascinated to visit all those places I had seen movies about (most of which, I discovered, weren't actually filmed in the real places, which looked completely different!). I remember visiting Zane Grey's cabin in Arizona with my dad, who read western stories when he was growing up. I'm going to ask him about Karl May. I used to enjoy reading poems by Robert Service back when I was younger and wanted to move to Alaska. He wrote about the frontier there. Thanks for sharing this author with us! I'm feeling like I should go watch a Western now....

    1. Karl May was called, in some places, the German Louis L'amour. I've heard about him but not about Zane Grey, I'll look him up.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Merit, I loved your post. I had never heard or Karl May. Thank you for the introduction to his work.

  4. Hungarian here, also grew up on Karl May (and Cooper, and the Great Bear books). Winnetou was my hero. Old S is a LITTLE bit too perfect (being an Author Avatar Mary Sue).


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