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May, Karl

Entry updated 24 August 2020. Tagged: Author.

(1842-1912) German author, much of whose output consisted of Westerns conceived under the clear influence of James Fenimore Cooper; the most famous of these is the Winnetou sequence, featuring the eponymous Native American (as noble as many Germans) and the white man, Old Shatterhand (a projection of the author), the central story being told in Winnetou, der rote Gentleman (1893 3 vols; trans Michael Shaw as Winnetou 1977). Effortlessly surpassing Native Americans and Blacks in every skill imaginable, Shatterhand is a clear precursor of Tarzan, who rather palely echoes his predecessor's Superman characteristics, which include extreme strength and agility, profound political charisma, and the ability to pick up new languages at a single hearing (similar in this to Alexandre Dumas's Count of Monte-Cristo).

May is of sf interest primarily for Ardistan und Dschinnistan (October 1907-September 1909 Deutschen Hausschatz as "Der Mir von Dschinnistan"; 1909 2vols; trans Michael Shaw as Ardistan and Djinnistan 1977), a Fantastic Voyage whose protagonist, carried by an undetermined form of Space Flight to a Counter-Earth called Sitara on the other side of the Sun, engages there in Planetary Romance adventures in the primitive land of Ardistan, but always with an eye to the neighbouring Utopia of Dschinnistan occupied by "Edelmenschen" (noble folk). The transfer of various exorbitances from the American West to a planet that prefigures Edgar Rice Burroughs's Barsoom renders the tale relatively harmless.

The Karl May Museum in Radebeul, however, focuses resolutely on the mythopoeic Shatterhand and his exploits; in 2014 its curators declined requests to take down its holdings of seventeen Native American scalps. May never visited the American West. [JC]

Karl Friedrich May

born Hohenstein-Ernstthal, Saxony: 25 February 1842

died Radebeul, Saxony, Germany: 30 March 1912

works (highly selected)


Winnetou (sample title only)

  • Winnetou, der rote Gentleman (Freiberg, Germany: Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld, 1893) [published in three volumes: Winnetou: hb/]
    • Winnetou (New York: Seabury Press, 1977) [trans by Michael Shaw of the above: Winnetou: hb/uncredited]

individual titles

  • Ardistan und Dschinnistan (Freiberg, Germany: Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld, 1909) [published in two volumes: first appeared October 1907-September 1909 Deutschen Hausschatz as "Der Mir von Dschinnistan": hb/Sascha Schneider]


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