Karl Way, Winnetou

August 4, 2012 § 12 Comments

“My white brother has answered truly.  But the palefaces come here on these lands of ours, and drive away our mustangs and kill our buffaloes; they seek among us for gold and precious stones, and now they will build a long, long road on which their fire-horses can run.  Then more pale-faces will follow this road, and settle among us, and take the little we have left us.  What are we to say to this?”

Bancroft was silent.

“Have we fewer rights than they?  You call yourselves Christians, and speak of love, yet you say:  We can rob and cheat you, but you must be honest with us.  Is that love?  You say your God is the Good Father of all men, red and white.  Is He only our stepfather, and are you His own sons?  Did not all the land belong to the red man?  It has been taken from us, and what have we instead?  Misery, misery, misery.  You drive us ever farther and farther back, and press us closer and closer together, and in a little time we shall be suffocated.  Why do you do this?  Is it because you have not room enough?  No, for there is room in your lands still for many, many millions.  Each of your tribes can have a whole State, but the red man, the true owner, may not have a place to lay his head.  Kleki-Petrah, who sits here before me, has taught me your Holy Book.  There it says that the first man had two sons, and one killed the other, and his blood cried to Heaven.  How is it with the two brothers, the red and the white?  Are you not Cain, and are we not Abel, whose blood cries to Heaven?  And when you try to destroy us you vanish us to make no defense.  But we will defend ourselves, we will defend ourselves.  We have been driven from place to place, ever farther away; now we collide here, where we believed ourselves at rest, but you come to build your railroad.  Have we not the same rights you have over your house and garden?  If we followed our own laws we should kill you; but we only wish your laws to be fulfilled towards us:  are they?  No!  Your laws have two faces, and you turn them to us as it suits your advantage.  Have you asked our permission to build this road?”

The history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Europeans who forcibly settled the lands over the past five centuries has been a contentious issue for centuries.  The push westward has a near-mythological quality even today in the United States.  The lands of the setting sun represent raw, primeval nature, often with a malicious bent, in the form of dust storms, tornadoes, and sudden blizzards.  For those heading west, the West was something to be endured, to be controlled, to be subdued.  Among those “natural” forces to be corralled were the nations that had lived upon the prairies, plains, deserts, and plateaus for millennia.  In many 19th century American accounts, the Sioux, Comanches, Nez Perce, and Apaches (among several others) were viewed with a mixture of benign dismissal and contempt.  Those “Indians” (or whatever term that may be applied today; there is no universal agreement) barely merited such consideration outside of those who had to navigate the lands, those who wanted to build there, or those few who conducted missions.  Such attitudes can be seen in early-to-mid-20th century American cinema and literature, with the war whoops and marauding bands on horseback setting fire to wagon trains and trying to tear up rail lines.

So it was with some interest that I agreed to read late 19th century German writer Karl May’s four Winnetou novels.  I was vaguely familiar with May’s name; I knew that he was the most popular German writer of the past two centuries and that disparate people from Einstein to Hitler admired his adventure novels.  I also recollect reading somewhere that May had never visited the United States when he wrote the first three novels (and only traveled as far west as Buffalo before writing the final book) and that he got all sorts of crucial details, from geography to native alliances/feuds, wrong.  Yet I have been intrigued by how, despite these apparent egregious errors, May’s novels are so popular today in Central Europe that yearly festivals, replete with stage re-enactments and cos-play, are held in his honor, a century after his death. 

Unfortunately, May is a virtual unknown in the Anglophone countries.  Although I did find a cheap abridged edition of the first novel as an English-language e-book and found excerpts from the second and fourth books available in English translation on Google Books, I ended up tackling the entirety of this roughly 2,000 page series in German, a language which I had studied for two years in college, but hadn’t really used much since 1997.  What I could piece together, from the gist I got in the original and from the translated snippets, is a series that, despite its many flaws in detail and language, is a moving work.

The Winnetou novels are set in the late 1860s, around the time of the building of the first intercontinental railroad.  A young German immigrant, Jack (who is later given the moniker of Old Shatterhand due to his strength), is a young “greenhorn” (May overuses this descriptor for a novice frontiersman) who is associated with the railroad.  This railroad (ahistorically) passes through the lands of the Apache people, who are not happy with the invasion of their lands.  The chief’s son, Winnetou, comes into contact with Old Shatterhand and his friend Sam Hawkens.  Another white worker, Rattler/Sander, betrays the Apaches, killing their white spiritual guide, Kleki-Petrah.  This leads to a series of misunderstandings that include the capture of Old Shatterhand and his company and their eventual rapprochement with Winnetou (now chief) and the Apaches.

The second and third novels relate the crew’s adventures across a fanciful version of the South (where a monstrous version of the KKK apparently openly controlled the Reconstruction South), Texas, Mexico (where May claims that no Mexican could engage in a lengthy conversation without first rolling a cigarillo), and back through a vast desert before a final conflict leads to a tragic demise for Winnetou.  The fourth novel, written almost twenty years after the others and published the year of May’s death (1910), is very different in tone, being more metaphysical and focused on solving the differences between “reds” and “whites” that were outlined in the passage from the first novel that I quoted above.

It would be easy to dismiss these novels as ill-researched and containing references (such as the treatment of the black Bob, often referred to as “nigger Bob,” who used the anachronistic “Massa” to the white members of Old Shatterhand’s crew) that would be questionable today.  The amount of cultural appropriation (to borrow a term often used to discuss how non-native writers take elements of another’s civilization to use in a way that is not faithful to how that culture views their culture/history) certainly would leave this century-old series open to some harsh (and well-deserved) attacks.  Yet despite being a native American (in a dual sense, at least partially) who could have chosen to dismiss this summarily, there certainly are worthwhile elements to the Winnetou series once the dodgy elements are acknowledged as such.  Old Shatterhand’s friendship with Winnetou, although there is some literary precedent in James Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels, is real and genuine and without degrading Winnetou into an “honorary white” status.  May, like many Germans of the late 19th century who heard tales of the “Wild West” and who saw the international traveling shows of the time, did have sympathy for the nations that were being subjugated.  With the exception of Old Shatterhand and his friends, the American whites were often depicted as being sly and ruthless, if not quite evil and malicious.  This stands in marked contrast to most American-penned novels of the West.  May’s novels contain a spiritual, vaguely Christian element to them.  Winnetou and the other Apaches often appear to be analogues for an ideal German nobility, one that is noble in spirit and not necessarily by blood or creed.  There are opportunities for the villains to recant of their sins and their failure to abide by the cardinal virtues is juxtaposed to how Winnetou and the Apaches comport themselves.  There is a positive message about the need for all humans to act as brothers toward one another, with the final novel serving as the culmination of this theme.

The prose is surprisingly well-written, with the action being fast-paced and yet not being devoid of a deeper meaning.  The characters of Old Shatterhand, Winnetou, Sam, Old Death, Old Surehand, and Old Firehand are well-drawn.  It is easy to picture youth and adults in Central Europe reading this and dreaming of a West that is not to be tamed but instead to be marveled over.  This contrast with the traditional American view is striking and perhaps explains why (as I read in the April 9, 2012 issue of The New Yorker) why so many Germans and other Central Europeans, even today, take such an interest in the native peoples of the United States.  Yes, there is much to shake one’s head over in these tales, but ultimately, if the reader can be charitable toward May’s faults, there are a series of rousing adventures to be found in his writings.

§ 12 Responses to Karl Way, Winnetou

  • Gabriele C. says:

    Is Old Shatterhand's name given as 'Jack' in the translation? That's totally missing the point. His name is Karl – a self insert of the author – and he's refered to as Charles by English-speaking characters in the novel. The self-insert aspect is important for the Wild West novels (there are some more beside the Winnetou series like Der Schatz im Silbersee and Unter Geiern) and a series of 6 books taking place in Egypt, the Arabian peninusla, the Bakan and Turkey – dominately Muslim lands, where Karl May features as Kara Ben Nemsi and has a friend in Hadschi Halelf Omar ben Hadschi Abul Abbas ibn Hadschi Davud al Gossarah (I didn't need to look that up, I still remember tne name. lol). Halef is not so much the noble savage like Winnetou but he's genuinely devoted to Kara Ben Nemsi; a man with courage and brains, albeit small of stature. Those novels belong to the middle period in Karl May's career. He started out writing serial adventure romances for journals (the so-called Münchmeyer Romane) and ended up writing more spiritual works (Ardistan und Dschinnistan, Im Reiche des silbernen Löwen).He was also the first to use the media to further his career: he posed dressed up as Old Shatterhand or Kara Ben Nemsi and sent those postcards around, held lectures and such until it finally surfaced that he had not really lived through all those adventures in person. Shades from his past as failed teacher with a prison sentence for theft and fraud.I admit to still having the complete set of his 74 novels, including the unabridged versions of the Münchmeyer Romane.

  • Gabriele C. says:

    BTW, there are several Winnetou movies. Filmed mostly in former Yugoslavia, with an American actor (Lex Barker) as Old Shatterhand and a French one (Pierre Brice) as Winnetou, but with German dialogues. Barker also played Kara Ben Nemsi in a – even more loosely novel-based – movie, plus the lead (Dr. Sternau aka the Duke of Olsunna) in one of the Münchmeyer adventure romances.

  • Liviu says:

    When I was young, the only reason I thought of ever wanting to learn German is to read Karl May as the available Romanian language translation were only of his major Wild West novels (Winnetou 1-3 but not the last Testament of Winnetou as that one was considered way too "religious" by the communist government, Old Surehand, The Treasure of the Silver Lake_ plus his Southa American one, The Testament of the Inca and plus whatver you could find from the 1940's when Romania alliance with the Reich led to a flurry of may translation (of which i read a couple as most pre-1947 books were burned by their owners when the communists took over since possession of such would lead to jail and the few remaining, buried or hidden in cellars were truly precious)Never got to it (learning German) and the US translations were mostly bad with stuff like that Jack just making one rip throw such books in the garbage(though there are a few nuggets like the rare and expensive but exhaustive translations here (got a few)http://www.nemsi-books.com/PubCompany/?page_id=216Luckily after 1989 there was a project to translate all May again in Romanian and while only some 40 odd volumes appeared I got all and finally read them including some of his romantic adventure stories like the Ulan's Love and From the Throne to the Scaffold, in addition to the Wild West and the Middle eastern booksGreat stuff for its message of universal brotherhood and while the world building is fanciful, it is not that far from the usual butchering of medieval stuff in fantasy anywayFor English if you have the opportunity, get the Michalak translations as they are just superb; lots more Winnetou there as he is by the far the most enduring of the author's creationsAlso watched a few of the movies ranging from excellent to awful, but the Bryce Barker combo was very good overall

  • Larry Nolen says:

    Yeah, it was in this abridged edition of the first volume, but Charles/Charley is what I noticed when reading excerpts from the other volumes (in translation) and in German. The self-insert was quite obvious in the fourth volume, but not in the first three, so I purposely didn't highlight that much.It does intrigue me to witness (yet once again) just how beloved of a writer May is in Central and Eastern Europe. It's like an order of magnitude greater than Dickens, Austen, or Twain (although Twain is probably too caustic for full embracing outside of Tom Sawyer).When I am working regularly again and have built up some money, I might buy some of the movies (they don't seem to be on Netflix instant queue or Amazon Instant Video) to watch and compare them to the Westerns I had to endure watching growing up with my dad being such a Westerns fan.Currently reading another popular fin de siècle writer, the Italian writer Emilio Salgari. I'm glad I took up this reading challenge, as I needed something a bit lighter than the poetry collections I've been reading lately! I hope to finish two of Salgari's Sandokan novels by mid-week at the latest, with a dual review around that time.

  • Gabriele C. says:

    I get the impression that Karl May is less popular with younger readers these days. After all, he has to compete with Rowling and other, faster paced writers. On the other hand, there's a university research project about Karl May here in Göttingen. So he finally made it into the Literature with a capital L.🙂

  • Anubis says:

    "It is easy to picture youth and adults in Central Europe reading this and dreaming of a West that is not to be tamed but instead to be marveled over."Nicely said. Indeed, there are several widely-read writers in Austria and Germany who set their works (mostly young adult and children's books) in the American West and depict Native Americans as sympathetic—sometimes with a rather moralistic "just cause", sometimes with an explicit political message. Other than Karl May, I'd count Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich, Ludwig Renn and Käthe Recheis among them.I used to read a lot of that stuff as a kid and even then I wondered why the portrayal of Native Americans in US western movies was so different from the one I knew from those books. Of course, there's no denying that the German fascination for everything "Indian" contains a strong element of cultural appropriation and "seeing oneself in the other". Still, an even though I believe they should be re-examined in a critical way, reading those books gave me an idea that the Native American peoples have a history of their own.

  • Anubis says:

    Forgot to mention: The only book by an American author I've ever come across that has a similar feel to that kind of literature, is John Reynolds Gardiner's Stone Fox.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    Yeah, it's a tricky issue regarding the cultural appropriations taking place. Even a distorted "Teutonic" image of the indigenous nations, problematic as it is at times, to me is at least better than having Amerindians as little more than an extension of a threatening natural force. I've been bothered by that for a long time, especially after I realized that beyond talk of my family (both sides) having Cherokee and Chickasaw ancestry, there was nothing said about their cultures. It was as though I were a white and an absence and that has colored my impressions on these sort of issues.In regards to adventure stories as a whole, outside of the "cowboys and Indians" tales, I really can't think of any American adventure tales of the late 19th century. Certainly very little from Europe stayed in popularity here for long. Maybe the closest would be the original Tom Swift novels of the early 20th century.

  • Foxessa says:

    Interesting, indeed.I knew of May but have never felt the need to track down any of his works, other than glances via google books.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    Same here, for over 15 years (ever since I encountered references to May in some of Hitler's off-the-cuff comments that were recorded). Having now read part of his work, I think of it as a "mostly harmless" type of work – some questionable choices that today would land him in hot water, but generally with more good than bad elements.Later tonight, I'm going to write an essay on Salgari. His pirate stories are interesting in their messages and also for those that they influenced.

  • Joris M says:

    May was also quite popular in the Netherlands, and I did read a lot of his work growing up in the 80's.

  • Larry Nolen says:

    Cool. I wonder if he's as popular today, though, now that videos/film are even more widespread.

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