Karl-May-Gesellschaft - English Page

Meet a Marvel ...

By Walther Ilmer


In Europe, he is one of the all-time Greats, and his books have sold close to a hundred million copies there. In the US, he is known to but a close-knit minority---

His name was KARL MAY (pronounced like "my") He never saw the American West. And yet his tales are the most breathtaking ever written of Good fighting Evil between the Missouri River and San Francisco. He created Winnetou - the noblest of all Red Indian warriors, and he would have been hailed jubilantly by Edgar Rice Burroughs ("The War Chief"; "Apache Devil"), had their paths ever crossed. The concept which Europeans - predominantly Germans, Austrians, Czechs, Dutch - have formed of American Indians, and their struggle and their doom is based on the colorful and compassionate writings of KARL MAY.

He advocated the equality of men and peace among nations, in the face of colonialism (which he abhorred). His first-person hero embodies all the ideals every true American has ever stood for since 4 July 1776. And yet he never captured the attention of the wide American reading public. Attempts at introducing translations of his 'Winnetou' novels, or other tales set in the West, have singularly failed.

Of course, there is no denying that the majority of situations, no less than the personnel described by this writer, clash with reality: Life, and fights, and problems as he depicted them as characterizing the Western half of the US in the 1860's and 1870's, are strangely anachronistic. That in itself, though, does not make any book unmarketable. (Otherwise, science fiction, as an example, would never have had a chance to flourish.) And whatever his deficiencies in any lopsided presentation of situations with their regard to historical probability, Karl May thoroughly compensates this by a startling accuracy in the topographical details in his stories (which he saw through the mind's eye only and visualized correctly) and by his gripping atmosphere of verisimilitude. Above all, it is the timeless, mythical lore he calls to life, masterly but unobtrusively, an enigmatical quality that has kept his works alive for over a century by now, in his home country and elsewhere. And precisely this is the overall feature that appeals to Americans as it does to Europeans.

Karl May, the Storyteller

Karl May's simple, straightforward, and startlingly graphic prose and his gift as a story-teller with an immortal message, make him as readable today as during his lifetime. And even if the barrier between his Western stories and those by, say, Earnest Haycox or Zane Grey or James F. Cooper should never crumble, there still are May's oriental adventure tales set in the Arabian and Turkish world of the 1870's, whose authenticity can hardly be challenged, and which sparkle with unbounded wit and suspense, and show the first-person hero as a contemporary errant knight in his successful crusade against crime and wickedness among proud and haughty sheiks and cruel slave traders and cunning bandits galore. They have all the splendor of the Arabian Nights and their chraracters are the liveliest to be met in this field of literature. There are, further, Karl May's several voluminous family sagas, interwoven with historical events - such as Benito Juarez warring against Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, or the Napoleonic era and the Franco-Prussian war 1870/71 - that take the reader nonstop through all sorts of havoc and intrigue and murder to the final triumph of noble hearts. In Germany, these latter novels are among the bread and salt for students of literature, as representing the very models of German counterparts to the sensational English novel of the Victorian era.

One main obstacle in bringing Karl May home to American readers must be clearly voiced, however: his easily-to-be-grasped style - both in the descriptive passages as in the dialogue - turns deceptive and slippery when translated into American (or British) English. Obviously, the translator must be in complete accord with the writer's mood, with the atmosphere hidden between the lines, with the underlying subtleties; a full command of the German language as such will not suffice. Germans have experienced this phenomenon with the writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs: in the translations, even at the hands of extremely good linguists, most of the magic, of the inherent appeal, got lost; for the true enjoyment of Tarzan, of John Carter, of David Innes and the rest, only the American original will really do. Still, the obstacle may be overcome in the case of Karl May if effort prevails and - late though it be - America may yet discover, to its long-lived delight, Germany's undying magician between book covers: KARL MAY.

The May Magic

The very secret of Karl May's long-lived triumph is a never-ceasing source of wonder to his analysts. His stories reflect, cleverly camouflaged, all the author's personal miseries, all his unfulfilled dreams, his every misdeed and legal offence, his wanderings as a fugitive and his unbroken belief in the betterment of man. Under the guise of adventure befalling man "in wide open spaces", the lively tales portray the author and every single one of his readers as God's creatures torn between the brink of hell and heavenly salvation.

The Karl May House, Museum and Foundation

The erstwhile shabby house Karl May was born in, at Hohenstein-Ernstthal, Saxony, Germany, has been given a thorough brush-up outside and inside, and today prides a fine little museum, featuring an exact replica of a weaver's workroom and kitchen of 1845 and displaying hosts of documents taking the visitor through Karl May's notable life. Close by, a Karl May bust cast in bronze adorns the town square. May's final place of residence, his 'Villa Shatterhand' at Radebeul near Dresden, Germany, also houses a museum, offering one of the continent's most imposing collections of exhibits of American Indians' culture and warfare, as well as a collection of Karl May's books and memorabilia from the times he literally "walked with kings". The Radebeul institution is closely linked to the 'Karl-May-Stiftung' (Foundation), an organization of charity set up by the author's last will and testament. Both the 'Karl-May-Haus' at Hohenstein-Ernstthal and the 'Karl-May-Museum' at Radebeul are corporate members of the KMG.