Karl May

Pierre Brice as Winnetou

Pierre Brice as Winnetou

My association with ‘Native’ was ‘Native American’. I had seen movies and read books by Karl May and had watched his movies where Pierre Briece, a French actor who played Winnetou (text is in German), the famous character from the May books.

Here is a link to the website to have Karl May’s books promoted in North America.

Karl May, Winnetou and more:

This is the trailer from Winnetou II is in German, I am going down the memory lane.


The article below appeared in today’s newspaper (Canada National Post). I thought it would fit perfectly here on this page.

A Wilden Westen Time by the Rhine

Karl May’s tales keep Germans Coming to Canada

Cleo Paskal National Post

Saturday, June 14, 2003

Karl May wrote on the Wild West but never got past Buffalo, N.Y.

Karl May wrote on the Wild West but never got past Buffalo, N.Y.

LIECHTENSTEIN – In front of Ye Olde West blacksmith shop, there is the requisite horse-hitch and the dance hall-saloon-hotel next door. In the background is a six-metre-high teepee. I am, of course, in Liechtenstein.

The man to blame for this Wilden Westen town by the banks of the Rhine is Karl May.

Say that name to a German and chances are you will elicit a misty-eyed look. Say it to a non- European and you will get a blank stare, even though May is responsible for a healthy chunk of German tourism to Canada.

May is the best-selling German author to date, with more than 100 million copies of his books in print. Stories of his travels in the Old West, the Orient and beyond have been translated into more than 30 languages.

He has been dead since 1912, yet his appeal endures. From 1986 to 1988, about 300,000 of his books sold in Lithuania alone. In Germany, there are two Karl May museums, countless local events, a film series, a television show and an annual Karl May festival that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Even Albert Einstein wrote: “My whole adolescence stood under his sign. Indeed, even today he had been dear to me in many a desperate hour.”

May also influenced me.

When I was 12 years old, my German-educated grandfather gave me an English copy of Winnetou, carefully inscribed: “Rather pleasant to bridge a gap of 50 to 60 years. G.” As I read it, I visited the same strange lands that entranced my grandfather 50 years before. It was rather pleasant.

May is arguably the most successful travel writer yet. Yet, his first trip outside Germany came well after the vast majority of his books were published. And some of his best pieces were written from jail.

His story begins in Germany in 1842, with his birth into a family so poor that few of his siblings lived past infancy. Starvation and ill health lead to blindness in his early years. He is taken care of by a grandmother who tells him wonderful folktales.

His widely travelled godfather adds his own exotic tales.

May regains his sight as he grows older. His father forces him to study every book he can afford to buy, from out-of-date geography books to scientific texts. He escapes into fantasy by reading books such as Himlo Himlini, the Chief of Robbers in Spain. May runs away from home at the age of 14, but his father finds him and brings him home before he can get to Spain.

He has the soul of a robber. In 1860, he is expelled from teachers’ school for stealing six candles for the family Christmas tree. He is allowed back and finishes his degree. He is fired from his first teaching job when he gets caught kissing a married piano student.

His next job, in 1861, is even more disastrous. May’s roommate accuses him of stealing his watch, pipe and cigarette holder, and he is sentenced to six weeks in jail.

Prison marks him for life. “It was as if I had brought home from the prison cell, in which I spent six long weeks, a whole crowd of invisible criminal characters, who made it their business to settle down with me and make me one of them,” he wrote.

From then on, May funnels his creativity into a life of crime. He poses as everything from an eye doctor to government officials. At one point, he rents two adjoining rooms, has furs delivered into one of them, slips them into the other room, then disappears. He is caught and is sentenced to four years in prison.

After his early release for good behaviour, May tries a new dodge, becoming an investigator of counterfeit money, which allows him to confiscate so-called bad bills from unsuspecting merchants. Sometimes, he claims he is the natural son of Prince von Waldenburg.

In 1870, a new high-tech aid, police photos, leads to his recapture. He is sent back to jail for four years.

Things are not looking good for the 32-year-old con man whose teachers’ licence was revoked, when his novel is accepted for publication. Soon, a publisher seeks him out to write and edit full time. And that is that.

May pours out his fantasies on the page, writing about trips to the Wild West and the Orient. In his books, he is all the things he is not in life — physically strong, morally pure and well-travelled.

There are proud father figures, admiring women, until-death-do-us-part friends. He is a perfect shot (but only to maim, never to kill), a great rider and he can speak scores of languages.

His Old West is populated by evil Yankees, Mormon land grabbers and honourable Natives. Many of the good palefaces are Germans. The West is full of German beer, German songs and German newspapers.

And so he fulfills another dream: The Wild West becomes the colony Germany never had — the one they would have managed with wisdom and grace had they been given the chance. But May’s greatest contribution is his eloquent lament for the treatment of the Natives. He writes of deliberately spread smallpox, ignored treaties and massacres.

One of May’s most memorable characters is Winnetou, the Apache chief, who is (almost) an equal and who becomes an equal after he converts to Christianity on his deathbed.

Winnetou speaks English without an accent and reads Longfellow. He also tells of the plight of his people, finishing with: “Howgh! Ich habe gesprochen.” (How, I have spoken.)

It is because of Winnetou that waves of German tourists head to Western and Northern Canada each year to take part in native powwows. Sure it is wish fulfilment, but their wish is a lot more admirable than the approach most non-aboriginal Canadians take toward Native issues.

A Native dancer I spoke to in Saskatchewan had been on tour in Germany. He said it was a wonderful experience to be appreciated. “They ask questions. They want to know. It was great.”

When May finally visited North America, long after Winnetou was published, he did not make it west of Buffalo. But that does not matter. He travelled the way few people do, into the heart of humanity, into our wishes and dreams. The world he wrote about did not exist. But it would be rather pleasant if it did.

For more on aboriginal tourism in Canada go to: www.attc.ca or www.turtleisland.org; For Karl May-related links: www.old-shatterhand.de/; me@cleopaskal.com



  1. Hello Marlies – While googling, doing research on a Karl May project, I came across your website. It is not very often that I find someone sharing my name, who is also acquainted with Karl May and Winnetou. For that reason alone – greetings from one Marlies, Karl May fan in Tasmania, to the Canadian Marlies, Karl May fan in Canada. I also found a Lac Winnetou in Quebec. Zufaelle gibts. Cheerio from the opposite side of the planet – Marlies, Karl May translator.

    • Hello Marlies,
      Thank you so much for your lines. Ja, Zufaelle gibts. I am always happy to hear from namesakes and then on top of it someone who knows about Karl May is the icing on the cake. Greetings back to you from Canada.

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