Karl May

written on 10/12/2020
by Heidrun Strobl

Howgh Winnetou hat gesprochen

For Germans, Christmas time is not complete without the stories of ’Winnetou’ and his friend ‘Old Shatterhand’ written by Karl May in 1890.

These stories about an Indian chief and his friend, told over three volumes, shaped us, the so-called baby boomer generation. In 1960, this trilogy was broadcast for the first time and has a cult status today.

Karl May ( 1842-1912) was Germany’s first bestselling author. He is considered the most widely read author in Germany, although exact numbers are difficult to verify.

Most sales were made before the age of data collection and the internet. He was also a versatile author. He not only published books, but also short stories in journals and penny novels .

It is estimated that he has published about 90 titles which have been translated into over 40 different languages and sold over 200 million times world-wide.

Karl May was not an easy character. During his early life he spent several years in prison for minor thefts and infractions. He never completed his training as a teacher.

Yet, these experiences also shaped his writing. During his time in prison, he read many travelogues and adventure novels which laid the foundations for his later writing.

For example, the names of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand’s horses came from the book “12 Sprachen aus dem Suedwesten Nordamerikas”.

Obsession with detail is one of the defining characteristics of his writing. Yet, interestingly, he never visited many of the sites in his novels.

The exotic characters, as well as locations, are products of his imagination and research. Nevertheless, he liked to present himself as a travel writer.

This is also how he explained his disappearance to the readership when he was in prison again. He only made it across the borders of Germany twice in his later years.

In 1900 he visited the Middle East and in 1908 the east coast of the USA. But he never made it to the South West, the setting for his most successful stories.

Aside from the Winnetou chronicles, one of his best known works is the travel report ‘Christmas’.

There he imaginatively connects his youthful experiences in Upper Frankonia and Bohemia with the hero stories of Old Shatterhand in the Wild West.

The connecting link is the poem “Weihnachtsabend” which he wrote during his prison stay in Zwickau. He also utilised the poem ‘Weihnachtsabend‘ in some other novels - abbreviated or rewritten.

He was an imaginative writer albeit sometimes a con man.

Yet, all of his stories have one thing in common: Justice, international understanding, and  good triumphing over evil.