Tall Tales of the West: The Stories of Karl May

Karl May's Winnetou

May's most famous character was fictitious Mescalero Apache Chief Winnetou, whose home was a conjured Pueblo along the Pecos south of Roswell on the Llano Estacado.

Winnetou exhibited a humanistic European education and a basic knowledge of French and German, but not Spanish. He was never out for revenge or out to kill his enemies. He was brave, honest, and just. In short, May idealized Winnetou as the noble savage of romanticism, a man morally superior to his white counterparts – except for Old Shatterhand, his German Blutsbruder (blood brother), who taught him European standards, values, and morals.

Winnetou and Old Shatterhand (in other stories called Old Shurehand or Old Firehand) pursued adventures that took them deep into Mexico and as far north as Yellowstone and Wyoming. May convincingly told his readers that he was Old Shatterhand and that he had encountered all the adventures conveyed in his stories: “I have visited these countries and speak their languages.”

May’s Winnetou trilogy profoundly influenced Europeans' image of the American West. His use of real geographic locations, his application of selective anthropological and ethnographic findings of the time, and his public insistence that his fictional heroes were real led readers often to regard his works as authentic. His use of first-person narration not only strengthened May’s illusion, but put readers into the narrator’s place and made them the hero.

The most unusual cover art for May’s Reiseerzählungen was designed by Sascha Schneider (1870-1927) who “…understood me [and] saw deeper than others.” But nude, homoerotic men, full of symbolism, did not go over well with readers of adventure chronicles, no matter how much Karl May liked the artist and his art. While the Fehsenfeld Publisher’s edition was basically the original classical book edition, Sascha Schneider’s later edition (also by Fehsenfeld Publisher) was soon replaced by the Radebeul edition.
Karl May. Winnetou III. Freiburg: Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld, ca. 1904. Cover art by Sascha Schneider.
Karl May. Winnetou der Rote [Red] Gentleman. Freiburg: Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld, 1895.
Karl May. Winnetou I. Radebeul: Karl May Stiftung, 1914.