Tall Tales of the West: The Stories of Karl May

Karl May's Tales of the American West and Beyond

May’s creative works went beyond the well-known series of Winnetou and the American West. Initially, he developed his characters in writings about the prairies or adapted other writers' works to his own needs. In those works, he developed the characters of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, introduced rifles such as the Silberbüchse, and established the Apaches' homeland near the Pecos in the Llano Estacado. Many of his works were later re-worked to fit editorial and publishing needs. In the Western hemisphere, his imagination took readers into Central and South America. In half a dozen treatises, May used historical situations, well-known geographical backdrops, and early American civilizations to anchor his fantasies. The title characters often had little to do with the story lines but were used to provide May with appropriate plots. The stories set in South America catered to Germany’s increased interest in the geographic, ethnographic, and socio-political situation on that continent, yet they never reached the popularity of May’s other novels. The narratives set in the "Orient" were dear to May, and his main character, Kara Ben Nemsi, has almost as much name recognition in Germany as Old Shatterhand. Contrary to his relatively short trip to the United States in 1908, May undertook one lengthy excursion into Africa and the Near East in 1899/1900. Although he named his home "Villa Shatterhand" and filled his garden with numerous sculptures and statues of the American West, his study held Asian ornaments and curios.


Der Sohn des Bärenjägers, a hostage rescue story set in the American Northwest appeared in 1887 as a serial in the youth magazine Der Gute Kamerad and then in book form in 1890. Contrary to his Reiseerzählungen, May used third-person narrative with an educational overtone emphasizing geography, botany, and tolerance toward non-white humans.
Karl May. Der Sohn des Bärenjägers (Son of the Bear Hunter). Stuttgart: Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1904.


Der Waldläufer is an adaptation of Gabriel Ferry’s novel Le Coureur des Bois (1850). May’s version appeared in 1879. Subsequent reprints were considerably altered and abridged until the 1959 edition reintroduced May’s original version. Der Waldläufer is one of May’s initial works where the stories gravitate toward the Llano Estacado and his Apaches’ homeland.
Karl May. Der Waldläufer (Forest Runner). Bamberg: Karl-May-Verlag, 1959.


Der Schwarze Mustang, later renamed Halfbreed, is the last of May’s juvenile stories. Serialized in 1896 in the youth magazine Der Gute Kamerad, it was published in book form in 1899.
Karl May. Der Schwarze Mustang: Eine Präriegeschichte (Black Mustang: A Narrative about the Prairies). Stuttgart: Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft, 1941.


Karl May declined publishers’ suggestions to combine the novels Der Sohn des Bärenjägers and Der Geist des Llano Estakado into one. Upon his death, the Karl-May-Verlag in 1914 did just that and published them as Unter Geiern.
Karl May. Unter Geiern (Among Vultures). Bamberg: Karl-May-Verlag, 1953.


While the bitter struggle between Benito Juarez, founder of modern Mexico, and Emperor Maximilian is true, much of the protagonists' actions derived from the author’s world of fantasy. The story fit well into the ideological concept of liberation from imperialistic powers and was popular in East Germany during the 1960s.
Karl May. Benito Juarez. Bamberg: Karl-May-Verlag, 1952.


Starting in Germany, the story deviated into Mexico. The main location is a mysterious pyramid in Mapimi, a desert in the northeastern part of Mexico.
Karl May. Die Pyramide des Sonnengottes (Pyramid of the Sun God). Bamberg: Karl-May-Verlag, 1951.



This juvenile adventure narrative about Jaguar, the Inca warrior, was written initially as a serial for the youth magazine Der Gute Kamerad. In 1895, it appeared in book form and has gone through several editions.
Karl May. Das Vermächtnis des Inka (The Legacy of the Inka). Bamberg: Karl-May-Verlag, 1951.
Karl May. Das Vermächtnis des Inka (The Legacy of the Inka). Radebeul: Karl-May-Verlag, 1900.


Alexander von Humboldt’s ethnographic studies in the early 19th-century Americas were highly formative for Germany’s growing interest in the North and South American continents and their Native populations. Cordillera of the Andes, the mountain ranges forming the western backbone of North America and South America, was also the backdrop for one of Karl May’s adventure stories in South America.
Alexander von Humboldt. Vues des Cordillères, et monuments des peuples indigènes de l'Amérique, Planches (Views of the Cordeliers). Volume 2. Paris: F. Schoell, 1810. John Bourne Collection.
Karl May. In den Kordilleren. Radebeul: Karl-May Verlag, ca. 1910.


Karl May frequently published stories in magazines before developing them into book-length manuscripts. In Der Deutsche Hausschatz, he published “Der Schatz der Inkas” (The Inkas’ Treasures).
Der Deutsche Hausschatz, (No. 17) 1891, pp.