Karl May was a German author of adventure and travel novels who lived from 1842 to 1912. As a writer he is both one the most read and most translated authors of the German langage; it is estimated that 200 million copies of books of his have been sold worldwide, half of them in Germany itself. Currently the edition of his works as produced by the Karl-May-Verlag consists of 94 volumes. He was also something of a modern Münchhausen
, as he exaggerated, lied and committed petty crimes (for which he did time in prison) along the way. He became quite wealthy from his books and settled down in a big new home, the Villa Shatterhand
(now a museum) in Radebeul near Dresden.
While May also wrote individual novels and series set as far apart as Mexico, South Africa and China, the two most well-known cycles of novels are set in the Orient (which for the purposes of the cycle began in the Balkans and was otherwise more or less congruent with the Ottoman Empire) and in the (Wild) West of the United States, respectively, and have been adapted into two series of films in the 1960s, starting with Der Schatz im Silbersee
(1962). While he did not bring The Western
to Germany — for that one has to thank James Fenimore Cooper and Friedrich Gerstäcker (1816-1872) — his novels to a large extent defined the way that genre developed in the German-speaking world, notably starting a tradition of sympathizing with Native Americans as much as, if not more than, the white frontiersmen. They are full of noble savages, Mighty Whitey
and other tropes that makes many people cringe now, but they can still be enjoyed for the insane attention to detail, even though lots and lots of it was made up. Karl May also wrote novels and stories, often in a more humorous vein, set in rural Germany (e. g. Der Wurzelsepp
and Erzgebirgische Dorfgeschichten
) and historical adventures set e. g. during the Napoleonic Wars
In his later years Karl May finally was able to journey to America and the Middle East that he had so vividly described in his books, and developed ambitions of being taken serious as a writer and thinker. His later works (for instance Ardistan und Dschinnistan
and Winnetou IV
) thus became more esoteric, but these now tend to be read only by the really serious fans. May also became a bit of a pacifist (his final public lecture in Vienna was attended by Bertha von Suttner) and, surprisingly for his time, voiced his disapproval of "Yellow Peril" stereotypes after the "Boxer" Rebellion in China in Und Friede auf Erden
("And Peace on Earth"), despite not having shown Chinese characters in a sympathetic light in earlier works.
Many of Karl May's works have been adapted into other media, especially after his works fell into the public domain in 1962/63, for instance into open-air spectacle dramas, films, comic books, radio plays and television series. Karl May's life became the subject of the films Freispruch für Karl May
("Acquittal for Karl May", 1960) and Karl May
(1972, directed by Hans-Jürgen Syberberg).
Tropes associated with Karl May's works:
- As Long as It Sounds Foreign: As he only disposed of a small sample base of words from Amerindian languages in his reference books, May would sometimes mix up words from unrelated languages when giving his Indians names or having them speak.
- Author Avatar: The hero of a Karl May novel is often this (many are also written in first-person narration). In-story it is also made clear that the man going by the name Kara Ben Nemsi in the Orient cycle is the same as the Westmann Old Shatterhand alias Charlie. In his later years a more self-conscious Karl May also interpreted Kara Ben Nemsi's sidekick Hadschi Halef Omar as a personification of his own anima.
- Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Played straight with young women, partly subverted with older ones. So it's usually a case of aging, occasionally with the narration pointing out she used to be a beauty in her youth. One particular case is that of Tocbela in "Old Surehand". In her case, her great beauty was ruined early on by shock and madness, and she barely recovers a little sanity when she's in her forties and irrevocably changed physically. Her older sister Tahua, also a famous beauty, was also changed by the trials of her Action Girl lifestyle.
- Blood Brothers: Old Shatterhand and Winnetou.
- Bowdlerized: After Karl May's death his widow Klara gave the firm that published the books (which renamed itself Karl-May-Verlag the right to make text alterations as it saw fit, and the publisher made extensive use of this. This took many forms, such as rearranging chapters, replacing foreign loanwords by more German ones, making deletions and additions, changing the names of many supporting and even a few lead characters, and suppressing some of May's more pacifist paragraphs to please the Nazis. As literary scholars and Karl May fans noted, this made the most commonly produced editions of May's works unusable for scholarly analysis. In more recent years new editions based on the original ones have been produced, however.
- Canon Welding: Karl May started with serialized stories which he later reworked into books, which sometimes required altering characters, elements and the context of a scene. For instance, in the serialized stories there are two different accounts of the first meeting of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand: In his first appearance in Winnetou, der rote Gentleman he meets Old Shatterhand in a saloon, in the one that became canonic in Winnetou I, the two first met when Shatterhand was working as a surveyor for a railroad company and Winnetou and his father Intschu tschuna wanted to stop them from building a railroad through Apache territory. The scene in the saloon was then recycled in Winnetou II with Winnetou pretending he did not know Old Shatterhand because the latter was accompanied by Old Death.
- The Chief's Daughter: Nscho-tschi, daughter of Intchu-chuna, chief of the Apaches and Winnetou's younger sister. She fulfills some of the cliches while avoiding others completely: she loves Old Shatterhand once she gets to know him, but even then she would butt heads with him over certain culturally-related things (and she's more right than he is); she avoids any Damsel in Distress situation, but she is brutally killed.
- Cool Horse: Both Apache chief Winnetou and his friend Old Shatterhand have a black stallion of Apache breed that are all of extraordinary quality, and they have the finest specimen. Old Shatterhand's Hatatitla and Winnetou's Ilchi are famous far and wide and only their names bring about respect. The antagonists in the movie adaptations tend to covet them and try to steal them from our noble heroes. (With no success, because the horses are trained to emphatically not let anyone else ride them. Bad things happen to those who try. And the bad things are not always treated comically. Being trampled to death by a horse is an unpleasant way to go.)
- Rih, the Arabian black stallion Kara Ben Nemsi rides during his Oriental travels.
- Creator Provincialism: Travelling abroad, especially in North and South America, Karl May's heroes have a tendency to meet and rub shoulders with German immigrants.
- Cultured Badass: Karl May presents his Avatar Old Shatterhand/Kara Ben Nemsi that way: Fluent in too many languages to number and well-versed in the cultures of people all over the world, he takes it good-naturedly when comical relief characters mock him as a "bookworm".
- Dan Browned: Karl May is well-known today for having created mostly fantasy versions of the settings of his novels, be it Kurdistan, be it The Wild West. They're far from accurate. However, back in his days, the U.S. Midwest was too far away both for him to do some research for his novels and for most of his readers to discover how utterly wrong he was in many points by seeing the real deal.
- Death by Irony: Santer, the murderer of Winnetou's father and sister, is crushed by the very gold that he has been after from Winnetou I to Winnetou III.
- Disney Villain Death: The Schut, eponymous villain of the final volume of the Orient Cycle, falls to his death with his horse while trying to escape by jumping across a canyon.
- Drugs Are Bad: Opium-addicted Old Death.
- Famed In-Story: Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, most prominently, and people also know their horses and guns. They are respected wherever they go.
- Flanderization: Winnetou in the earlier stories did have a darker, more savage side, but as time progressed Karl May idealized him more and more until he finally became a Christ-like figure.
- German Dialects: A number of the people Old Shatterhand meets Out West come from Karl May's native Saxony and speak with a sometimes quite marked Saxon dialect. May also wrote a number of novels and stories set in Bavaria with people speaking Bavarian, but not in a form that made him new friends in Bavaria.
- German Peculiarities: Karl May was a patriotic German and so some peculiarities of the day show up. For instance in a story where Winnetou visits Charlie at home in Germany, he arrives just in time for choir practice of the local male voice choir, which does an impromptu recital for him. Winnetou himself has been called "the most German of all Indians" by some people, probably in part due to his preferred drink. Here's a scene where he goes into a saloon:
"I'd like a glass of beer, German beer!" said the Indian with a melodious, sonorous voice and in beautiful, fluent English. (...) He received his beer, raised the glass to the light of the window, examined it with the glance of an expert, and drank. "Well
!" he told the host, smacking his tongue, "Your beer is good. The Great Manitou of the white men has taught them many arts, and brewing beer is not the least among them."
- Going Native: Played straight with Klekih-Petra, Winnetou's teacher. Born in Germany, disillusioned with the world and even God, he finally settles with the Apaches, who treat him very kindly and respectfully. Even though he doesn't think the Native Americans have much of a fighting chance against the white people in the long run, he chooses to stay with them and help them as much as he can.
- Happens to a degree to his spiritual successor, Old Shatterhand. Also a German, but much more younger, still full of optimism and wanderlust, he repeatedly refuses to stay with the Apaches permanently, despite having took to the native life Likea Fish Takesto Water. It goes for the Oriental cycle as well, though he has even less reasons to stay there.
- Gratuitous Foreign Language: English, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, and many other languages crop up all over the place. Karl May pretended to be fluent in hundreds of languages, but in fact got most of what he used in his novels from encyclopedias and other books.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, Kara Ben Nemsi and Hadschi Halef Omar. The friendship of Old Shatterhand and Winnetou is incredibly strong and they trust each other completely. Both have loved a woman very deeply, but both have lost them, so they only have one another as family which adds to the closeness. They call each other "my brother" and they sometimes read each other's ideas.
- In the books, Winnetou was in love with Ribanna when he was still a teenager, and the circumstances in which he lost her were a lot more tragic. And while Old Shatterhand cared a lot for Nsho-Tchi, respected her and admired her, he wasn't in love with her. And wasn't interested in marriage with anyone at that point, anyway. So by the time they meet, and especially after Winnetou's family dies, they are each other's everything. In fact, Winnetou himself tells Old Shatterhand, shortly after the murder: "You know what I have lost. From now, you be my father and my sister. I beg of you, Scharlih."
- Ideal Hero/Marty Stu: Old Shatterhand and Winnetou are so perfect — this level of pure awesomeness is impossible in real life, but his characters are no less amazing for it.
- I Have Many Names: Charlie has a lot of these. It all starts with "Old Shatterhand", which is of course the nickname given to him by his white companions, and then this nickname got translated into pretty much every Indin dialect of every tribe he has ever encountered (or, after a while, who has ever heard of him). So we have Selki-Lata/Selkhi-Lata (Mescalero Apache), Nonpay-Klama (Shoshones), Pokai-Mu (Utah), Tave-Schala (Yuma), Nina Nonton, Ka-Ut-Skamasti, and so on. Then there are the variations of his given name, Carl, which he adapts into Charley/Charlie/Charles/Carlos, and is usually reserved for friends. (Special mention goes here to Winnetou's "Scharlih", which is the Apache's affectionate way of (mis)pronouncing Charlie.) He also uses aliases whenever he thinks the situation requires it, such as Mr. Jones, März, Mr. Beyer, Meier/Mayer, Mr. German, and in one amusing case of trying to mislead someone, Old Firefoot. Moving to South America, we have Arriquez, Tocaro, El Rastreador, El Sendador.
- In the Orient cycle, he is called Kara Ben Nemsi (Karl, Son of Germans) and Baturu (the Brave), but he also uses several aliases, such as Scherif Hadschi Schebab Eddin Abd el kaderben Hadschi Gazali al Farabi ibn Tabit Mrewan Abul Achmed Abu Baschar Chatid Es Schonahar, Mauwatti El Pars-Effendi, Nusrani, Saduk el Baija, Mayor of Dimiat, Abu Machuf, Amm Selad, Mudir of Dscharabub, Iskander Patras, Ben Sobata, Abu es Sidda, Selim Mefarek, Hadschi Akil Schatir el Megarrib(nis) ben Hadschi alim Schadschi er Rani Ibn Hadschi Dajim Masschur el Azami ben Hadschi Taki Abu Fadl el Makurram, Abd el Mushala, Emir Hadschi Kara ben Nemsi ben Emir Hadschi Kara ben Dschermani ibn Emir Hadschi Kara ben Alemani. Further East, in China, he is called Kuang-Si-Ta-Sse. And there is more where this came from.
- And in "Weihnacht!", Carl's old school friend Carpio calls him Sappho, both while they were kids and after Old Shatterhand had become a famous name in the West. And yes, it's Sappho as in the poet of Lesbos. And yes, he received the nickname because he also wrote nice poems.
- Winnetou himself almost never uses aliases, choosing rather to not give any name rather than spin a lie, but when he follows Charlie to Africa (loooong story), he lets Charlie pick a name for him - they go with Ben Asra, Somalian/Indian prince. Other people they meet, both Arabs and white, call him Winnetou el Harbi w’Nasir, or simply "Mr. Beyer’s Indian" (Mr Beyer being Old Shatterhand).
- Legendary Weapon: Old Shatterhand's and Winnetou's weapons are reputed. Also, easier to steal than the bloody horses. Since they are not sentient (no matter what the Comanches or the Sioux would have you believe), our heroes have to get them back on their own.
- Living Legend: Old Shatterhand and Winnetou. People know the names of their horses and guns and they are respected for their sense of justice, honour, incredible fighting skills and general awesomeness.
- Loin Cloth: Subverted in the books. Even though the most frequently encountered tribes (Apaches, Kiowas, Comanches) all live in the South, they all wear leather pants.
- Named Weapons: Old Shatterhand had two guns, one a rare, but at least theoretically not unique Henrystutzen (Henry short rifle), the other named the Bärentöter (bear-slayer). Winnetou used the unerring Silberbüchse (silver rifle), so named because it was decorated with silver stud-nails all over. Sam Hawkens said he wanted to be buried with his rifle, the somewhat temperamental Liddy.
- Noble Savage: Winnetou and many other Native American characters tend to go in that direction, "Indsmen" antagonists tend to leave out the "noble" part.
- Numbered Sequels: Winnetou I, II, III and IV, Old Surehand I, II and III, Im Lande des Mahdi I, II and III, Satan und Ischariot I, II and III, and Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen ("In the Empire of the Silver Lion") I and II.
- Overly Long Name: Some of Charlie's Arabic aliases eminently qualify (see above), but the most famous example is Hadschi Halef Omar Ben Hadschi Abul Abbas Ibn Hadschi Dawuhd al Gossarah. Normally he is just called Hadschi (Hajji) Halef Omar, but reciting his full name is a shibboleth among readers. If you can't pass the "Hadschi Halef test" you're not a true Karl May fan. There's a song Hadschi Halef Omar by Dschinghis Khan to help you learn to recite it.
- Plucky Comic Relief: For many what makes the books so readably despite the perfection of the main heroes. Hadschi Halef Omar, Sam Hawkens, and Uncle Gunstick are some well-known examples.
- Power of Friendship: The bond between Winnetou and Old Shatterhand is strong enough to move mountains.
- Their bond is so strong, it starts working even before they become friends, and even while, for all intents and purposes, they were actively enemies - except Old Shatterhand does everything in his not-inconsiderable power to save and protect Winnetou from whatever plans were made against him (even when said plans belonged to his good mentor Sam Hawkens, much to the westman's despair) and Winnetou, for all the wrestling and knife-induced wounds, has serious problems with letting the man simply bleed to death. It starts to get ridiculous when he literally puts himself between Old Shatterhand and a murderously angry Tangua - while Old Shatterhand was tied at the stake and couldn't defend himself properly. It's a wonder if any readers remember by that point that those two were still supposed to be enemies.
- The Quiet One: Winnetou.
- Quintessential British Gentleman: Karl May lived at a time when wealthy British globetrotters were a common trope, so some characters of this type appear in his works. The most well-known examples are Englishman Sir David Lindsay in the Orient Cycle and Scotsman Lord Castlepool in Der Schatz im Silbersee. Lord Castlepool is obsessed with making wagers and travels through the Wild West in search of adventure, paying his guides 50 Dollars per adventure.
- Self-Insert Fic: One of the lies May tried to pass around was that he really went to America and experienced what Old Shatterhand did. Old Shatterhand is also called Charlie. Karl, Charles, Charlie — get it?
- At some point in the early stories, before getting his nickname, the character admits to be a German immigrant.
- Trickster Archetype: If you step back and take a really good look at Old Shatterhand, you realise he's this, especially after he grows up a bit. He's always much more clever than the people around him, he's a consummate liar with a frightfully innocent face, is a truly honest man who nevertheless is willing to occasionally use (somewhat) dishonest means to reach his goals (though usually only when lives are on the line), always favors cunningness and yes, trickery instead of brute strength, if it does come down to using brute strength he is always able to somehow defeat much more powerful adversaries, is using Obfuscating Stupidity as often as he can, mostly to obtain information, not admit to his true identity for various reasons, and sometimes just For the Lulz. He is often accused of having made a deal with the Devil/Evil Spirit because of how things always go his way. Both friends and enemies have called him "as cunning as a fox".
- Verbal Tic: Most Plucky Comic Relief characters have one. Sam Hawkens' constant "If I'm not mistaken, hihi!" became a catchphrase. Old Wabble's "It's clear" comes close.
- Wholesome Crossdresser: Tante Droll (Aunt Droll) is famous as a "Westmann" who looks like a woman (fans are still divided between those who see him as just looking a bit feminine and those who see him as an outright transvestite). Old Surehand's mother is an example of a tough lady disguising herself as a man.