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Karl May – Dreamer, best-selling author and visionary

Biography & Works

“It would appear that [Karl May] does not write to make is little earthly name famous or to immortalise himself, but to spread ideas he picks up from the contemporary intellectual trends.”
Karl May in Und Friede auf Erden, (And Peace on Earth) 1904

For generations, Karl May (1842 – 1912), creator of immortal adventure heroes like Winnetou, Old Shatterhand, Hadschi Halef Omar and Kara Ben Nemsi, has been the most popular and most-read German author. Worldwide, roughly 200 million copies of his adventure stories have been sold. His works have been translated into almost 50 languages.

May came to fame in particular through his “Travel Tales”, which were published in book form from 1892 on. In them, May describes his heroes’ adventures around the world, especially in the “Wild West” of North America and the Orient, as a first-person narrator. Karl May’s advocacy for humanism, tolerance and love of peace – in particular in his late works – is more relevant than ever today.

Monochrome portrait of Karl May about 1905Portrait of Karl May about 1905

Short biography

1842 Karl Friedrich May is born on 25 February, the son of a poor family of weavers in Ernstthal (now Hohenstein-Ernstthal, Saxony); nine of his 13 brothers and sisters die in early childhood.
1856 to 1863 After training as a teacher, he works as an assistant and factory school teacher. After being accused of having used his room-mate’s pocket-watch without permission, he was sentenced to six weeks in jail and his teaching permit was revoked permanently; May is also banned from giving private lessons.
From 1864 Without career prospects and mentally distracted due to the far-reaching pocket-watch affair, he commits a series of thefts and frauds. This is followed by total jail time of almost eight years; he decides to become a writer.
From 1875 May works as a newspaper editor and freelance author. The Inn-nu-woh and Old Firehand stories are published, introducing the original Winnetou. He makes his breakthrough with his Oriental travel stories in the family magazine Deutscher Hausschatz.
From 1890 May’s works for young people are published in book form, starting with Der Sohn des Bärenjägers (The Son of Bear Hunter). His collected Travel Novels followed two years later. The first volume published was Durch Wüste und Harem (Through Desert and Harem) (from the 4th edition Durch die Wüste [Through the Desert]).
From 1896 In a series of photos in costume, Karl May is spectacularly portrayed as his literary alter egos Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi. May markets himself like a pop star.
1899 to 1900 May’s Oriental journey (e.g. Egypt, Ceylon and Sumatra) marks the turning point in his literary output. His works are increasingly dominated by pacifism allegory. Among others, Et in terra pax (extended version: Und Friede auf Erden! [And Peace on Earth!]), a work aimed at equality and anti-colonialism.
1908 May’s only journey to the USA takes him to New York and the Great Lakes area, he never experiences the “Wild West”.
March 1912 Karl May holds his pacifist speech Empor ins Reich der Edelmenschen (Up to the Empire of the Noble People) before an audience of almost 3,000. Nobel Peace Price laureate Bertha von Sneaker (1843 – 1914) sits in front of his lectern. When May dies a few days later on 30 March in Radebeul, probably from the consequences of a chronical lead or cadmium poisoning (e.g. due to drinking water from lead pipes), she writes his obituary.

You can find a comprehensive biography of Karl May in English here:

Karl May’s biography: 1842-1912


Karl May in his library, 1896Karl May in his library, 1896 Karl May as his alter ego Old Shatterhand, 1896Karl May as his alter ego Old Shatterhand, 1896

Early works(ab 1875)

Karl May laid the literary foundations for adventure and travel stories in his early years as a writer. Inn-nu-woh, der Indianerhäuptling (Inn-nu-woh, the Indian Chief) (1875) was May’s first story that took place outside Europe and contains a precursor to the later Winnetou figure.

May also published various works from the entertainment genre in his early writing phase, which are often set in his local environment. They include village tales from the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains) region like Die Rose von Ernstthal (The Rose of Ernstthal) (1874 or 1875), various humorous stories like Die Fastnachtsnarren (The Carnival Fools) (1875) and crime novellas like Wanda (1975).

Winnetou and Ribanna, first illustration of the Winnetou character, 1879Winnetou and Ribanna, first illustration of the Winnetou character, 1879

Colporteur novels(1882-1888)

For Dresden publisher H.G. Münchmeyer, Karl May wrote five serial novels comprising several thousand pages, mostly under pseudonyms or even anonymously: Waldröschen (Forest Rose) (1882–1884), Die Liebe des Ulanen (The Lancer’s Love) (1883–1885), Der verlorne Sohn (The Prodigal Son) (1884–1886), Deutsche Herzen – Deutsche Helden (German Hearts – German Heroes) (1885–1888) und Der Weg zum Glück (The Path to Happiness) (1886–1888).

These exclusively commissioned works of trivial literature gave Karl May financial security, but are considered to have less literary worth today.

Illustration of Karl May's first colporteur novel: "Waldröschen oder die Rächerjagd rund um die Erde"Illustration of Karl May's first colporteur novel: "Waldröschen oder die Rächerjagd rund um die Erde"

Travel Tales(1892–1910)

Between 1892 and 1910, the Friedrich Ernst Fehsenfeld Publishing House published a total of 33 volumes under the title Carl May’s Gesammelte Reiseromane (Carl May’s Collected Travel Novels) or later Karl May’s Gesammelte Reiseerzählungen (Karl May’s Collected Travel Tales).

The Orient Cycle (Volume 1 to 6) and the Winnetou Trilogy (Volume 7 to 9) are without doubt among the most famous books in this series. Most of these stories were previously published in the Deutscher Hausschatz (German Home Treasure), in Der Gute Kamerad (The Good Companion) or other magazines.

After the Karl May Publishing House was founded in 1913, many of the books were republished, some with major revisions, and under new titles as part of the new series “Karl May’s Gesammelte Werke” (Karl May’s Collected Works).

Illustration of Karl May's book "Durch das Land der Skipetaren"Illustration of Karl May's book "Durch das Land der Skipetaren"

Stories for young people(1887–1897)

Between 1887 and 1897, Karl May wrote stories specifically for young readers for magazine Der Gute Kamerad.

Besides the most famous story, Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure of Silver Lake) (1890/91) they also include Der Sohn des Bärenjägers (The Son of Bear Hunter) (1887), Der Geist der Llano estakata (The Ghost of Llano Estakata) (1888), Der blaurote Methusalem (The Blue-Red Methusalem) (1892), Die Sklavenkarawane (The Slave Caravan) (1889/90), Das Vermächtnis des Inka (The Inca Legacy) (1891/92), Der Oelprinz (The Oil Prince) (1893/94) and Der schwarze Mustang (The Black Mustang) (1896/97).

From 1890 on, an illustrated edition of the books was released by Union Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft Publishing House.

Story "Der Sohn des Bärenjägers" within the first edition of the journal "Der Gute Kamerad", 1887Story "Der Sohn des Bärenjägers" within the first edition of the journal "Der Gute Kamerad", 1887

Late works(ab 1900)

The late works include the philosophical and allegorical works published after May’s Oriental travels from 1900 on.

For example, they include the collection of poems Himmelsgedanken (Thoughts of Heaven) (1900), the works Und Friede auf Erden! (And Peace on Earth!) (1904), Ardistan und Dschinnistan I and II (1909), Winnetou IV (1909) and May’s autobiography Mein Leben und Streben (My Life and My Efforts) (1910).

Karl May’s late works haven’t been as commercially successful as the adventure novels, but are considered to be the literarily most worthwhile part of his total work.

Front cover of Karl May's "Peace on Earth" by Sascha Schneider, 1904Front cover of Karl May's "Peace on Earth" by Sascha Schneider, 1904


It is a little known fact that Karl May wrote some compositions of his own while working as choir director of Ernstthal Choral Society “Lyra” around 1864.

The best known piece is his version of Ave Maria, first published in 1897 in the magazine Deutscher Hausschatz.

CDs with Karl May’s profane and clerical compositions are available in our online shop!

Karl May's compositions CDKarl May's compositions CD

You can also find a wide selection of Karl May’s books in German in our online shop.

Karl May Museum

Karl-May-Str. 5
01445 Radebeul

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