Karl May, aka Old Shatterhand, aka Kara ben Nemsi (cont’d)

Karl May, aka Old Shatterhand, aka Kara ben Nemsi (cont’d)


Excerpt from: Savage To Saint: The Karl May Story, Lulu.com

But once again May stumbled headlong into bothersome complications. Combining fiction with fact was unheard of in that era; by incorporating characters that were from Old Shatterhand’s homeland, Germany, like Hobble-Frank, from Moritzburg, May provided the reader with a sense of reality. He not only gave the characters in his books a homeland origin but also found inspiration for some of them in the people from his immediate surroundings. For example, Carpio, young Karl’s absentminded school chum in “Holy Night!”, was modeled on a schoolboy by the name of Garbe (Falk J. Lucius, 1999), a childhood friend of the real Karl; however, it was more likely that this particular episode was wishful thinking on May’s part, as he, by his own admission, never had a close boyhood friend.

But May’s greatest sin, in the eyes of his critics, was that he alluded to the parallel identity of the first person narrator with himself throughout the travel novels, later termed travel experiences. He completed the lie, in the mid-nineties at the latest, with his statement in Krueger Bei (1894/5), that he—May—was identical to Old Shatterhand; and that lie came back to haunt him later. Krueger Bei was written in 1890/91 and published in 1894/5—Krueger, a German name; Bei, Turkish: sir, or tribal leader, or military rank. The Krueger Bei story was later incorporated into the Satan und Ischariot (Satan and [Judas] Iscariot) trilogy, translated as The Travels of Winnetou &Shatterhand and makes up almost the entire second volume.

In 1893 May wrote ‘Die Rose von Schiras’ (‘The Rose of Shiraz’—more about ‘The Rose of Shiraz’ in the next post), first intended as the conclusion to the Winnetou trilogy; it was not published until later when it became the two opening chapters to Im Reiche des silbernen Loewen (1897/98). In ‘The Rose of Shiraz’, May identifies himself with both Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi. In Winnetou I (1893) Winnetou calls Karl May ‘Sharlih’ for the first time and, by proxy, confirms the earlier allusion to the writer’s identity in 1879 in ‘Unter Wuergern’.


After a series of civil actions against him for debt in the years leading up to and including 1891 (money was scarce because of medical expenses for both his mother dying of cancer and his father of a stroke), the last decade of the nineteenth century was devoid of court cases; the ‘silver rifle’ and ‘bear killer’ were commissioned and built especially by a local gunsmith. By 1896, the identification of Karl May with the persona of Old Shatterhand was complete.

May had numerous costume photos taken during the mid-nineties, dressed as Old Shatterhand and Kara Ben Nemsi respectively. The pictures were for sale through the offices of photographer Adolf Nunwarz in Linz-Urfahr. They showed him handling all manner of guns, rifles, carbines, pistols and revolvers; some of the pictures were heavily touched up to conceal the identity of the weapons. As Hans Grunert (Karl May Museum) (2007) explained:

“In one costume photo he laid it on a bit thick, as he had himself photographed with a Saxon Carbine Model 1873 and passed it off as his magic rifle. But he was taken to task about it as this weapon was created by rebuilding 10,000 French single-shot Chassepot-guns from the war booty of the German-French war, and which had remained a part of the armory of the Saxon Cavalry until 1891. He was confronted about his ‘Henry rifle not being a magazine rifle, as the photograph shows’. But Old Shatterhand/Kara Ben Nemsi was above such reproach: ‘You don’t understand, sir,’ he argued with an official of the artillery workshops. When the official explained to him that weapons were his livelihood, May replied: ‘That doesn’t mean you understand my Henry rifle’.”

May dumped all of the original plates into the Danube in 1901, as the photos had turned into a weapon against him in the hands of his adversaries.

But for the time being, the writer traveled much and was adored by his readers—he was a respected and successful travel writer, a noble among his peers.

Winnetou likewise entered his noble phase, although May didn’t quite succeed in pulling it off. Without enough time to create, write and publish three completely new books for the trilogy in only one year as he would have liked it, he scraped together stories that had been published earlier. The discrepancy in content is quite marked. Volume one portrays a different, more sophisticated, educated and worldly Winnetou, whereas in volumes two and three, the Apache reverts back to the more savage appearance of earlier times—because May only had enough time to execute cosmetic plot changes to fit the older stories into their respective slots in the trilogy.

Yet, these three books became the most famous of all his published works. They are also a great means by which Winnetou’s development can be traced. The reader would expect a logical progression from the beginning of volume one through to the end of volume three. But this is not so and a closer look reveals how May recycled his own texts. He had been starved of recognition for his work, of being liked and loved, being successful for so many years that he promised to the publishers more than he could deliver; he wasn’t going to miss any opportunity to perpetuate his fame with the Old Shatterhand legend and the mystery surrounding his persona.

More: SavageTo Saint: The Karl May Story, Lulu.com