Karl May

Karl Friedrich May (Hohenstein-Ernstthal, February 25, 1842 - Radebeul, March 30, 1912) was the best selling German writer of all time, noted chiefly for wild west books set in the American West and similar books set in the Middle East; in addition, he also wrote some lesser-known stories set in his native Germany, some poetry, an autobiography, and a play. May also dabbled as a musical composer, writing two very famous romantic German songs, "Forget Me Not" and a version of "Ave Maria".

May was born into a poor family and suffered from blindness shortly after his birth, probably due to malnourishment. He regained his eyesight only after an operation and treatment at age four. He went to school in Waldenburg (Saxony). During his training to become a teacher, he began writing, but remained commercially unsuccessful for a long time. While working as a teacher, he repeatedly got into trouble with the law for small thefts and conman frauds, and was jailed a number of times.

It wasn't until about 1875 that May achieved commercial success with his writing, 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; this might have been a case of pseudologia (compulsory lying), a fallback to his days as a conman.

He used many different pen names, including Capitain Ramon Diaz de la Escosura, M. Gisela, Hobble-Frank, Karl Hohenthal, D. Jam, Prinz Muhamel Lautréamont, Ernst von Linden, P. van der Löwen, Emma Pollmer, Richard Plöhn, and Oberlehrer Franz Langer. Today his works are all published under his own name.

He 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 maps, travel accounts and guide books, as well as anthropological and linguistic studies.

Well aware of his target audience, "true", i.e., non-dogmatic Christian feelings 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 Red Indians 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.

Karl May

In the books set in America, May invented the characters of Winnetou, the wise chief of the Apache Tribe, and Old Shatterhand, the authors 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 Sahara 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.

May's works were immensely successful in continental Europe and many other parts of the world, translated into well over thirty different languages including Latin, Volapük, and Esperanto, and selling over 200 million copies world-wide. Still, he is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, though this is slowly beginning to change. Several of his novels were made into films, most of which were shot in the West-lookalike mountains of the former Yugoslavia. See also Spaghetti Western.

Even long after his death May is blamed for being praised by Adolf Hitler. Other prominent admirers of his are said to have been Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse and Bertha von Suttner. German author Carl Zuckmayer even named his daughter after the character "Winnetou" (although Winnetou is male). Literary criticism has typically regarded May's books as trivial.

May's house in Radebeul near Dresden in Germany has been turned into a museum devoted to Karl May and his anthropological collection of artifacts of native American Indian origin.


Karl May movies

Between 1912 and 1968 German cinema has screened 23 movies made after novels by Karl May. Most of them only loosely connected to the stories of the respective novels. In thirteen of these movies American actor Lex Barker starred either as Old Shatterhand or as Kara ben Nemsi or as Doctor Sternau. Three movies have seen British actor Stewart Granger in the leading role as Old Surehand and one movie starred American actor Rod Cameron as Old Firehand. At the time of writing, Karl May considered the prefix "Old" to the names of several of his heroes as being typically American and illustrating the great experience of the heroes. Ten movies featured French actor Pierre Brice as the fictional Apache-chief "Winnetou".

The music for the movie "Der Schatz im Silbersee" (The Treasure of Silver Lake (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056452/combined)) (1962), composed by German Martin Böttcher, was a landmark in German film music. It was one ingredient of the great success of the Karl May movies of the 1960ies. And the success of these movies only made possible the later so called Spaghetti Western from Italy (with the famous compositions of Ennio Morricone). The star of some of the Spaghetti Westerns, Terence Hill, began his career in the German Karl May movies.

Most of the movies of the 1960ies were shot in former Yugoslavia (Not in the Alps, as stated in some online-databases), some in Spain, none in America.

Detailed information on the Karl May movies (in German) at German Wikipedia (http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl-May-Filme).

As most of the movies are typical of mid-1960s public sentiment and standars of filmmaking, they can appear a bit dated to a contemporary audience.

  • Auf den Trümmern des Paradieses (1920), silent movie
  • Die Todeskarawane (1920), silent movie
  • Die Teufelsanbeter (1921), silent movie
  • Durch die Wüste (1936), first sound-movie
  • Die Sklavenkarawane (1958), first color-movie
  • Der Löwe von Babylon (1959)
  • Der Schatz im Silbersee (1962)
  • Winnetou 1. Teil (1963)
  • Old Shatterhand (1964)
  • Der Schut (1964)
  • Winnetou 2. Teil (1964)
  • Unter Geiern (1964)
  • Der Schatz der Azteken (1965)
  • Die Pyramide des Sonnengottes (1965)
  • Der Ölprinz (1965)
  • Durchs wilde Kurdistan (1965)
  • Winnetou 3. Teil (1965)
  • Old Surehand 1. Teil (1965)
  • Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen (1965)
  • Das Vermächtnis des Inka (1965)
  • Winnetou und das Halbblut Apanatschi (1966)
  • Winnetou und sein Freund Old Firehand (1966)
  • Winnetou und Shatterhand im Tal der Toten (1968)

Karl May festivals

The most famous is the open-air-festival every summer in Bad Segeberg, Schleswig-Holstein (Northern Germany), whose plays for many years were directed by the movie actor Pierre Brice. Also there are open air plays at Elspe, where movie-actor Pierre Brice for seveal years also was playing his Winnetou-character in a live version and at the mountain-stage in Radebeul, the village where Karl May was born.


  • Hans Wollschläger: Karl May. Grundriß eines gebrochenen Lebens (1965, 1976, 2004) [in German].

External links and references

Karl May's Works in English:

Other English Language Websites:

German Language Websites:

de:Karl May eo:Karl MAY he:קרל מאי nl:Karl May nds:Karl May pl:Karl May


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