The American West in the European Imagination
It's impossible to exaggerate the importance of May's Western creations and their hold on the German mind. Even in an age where reading has taken a back seat to the VCR and the computer Winnetou lives on as a living myth, in the person of a French actor called Pierre Brice, who for the past thirty years has played Winnetou in films and on stage and looks how every European imagines a 'Noble Savage' should look.
May's real concern is not the American West but the need for Christian brotherhood, which undoubtedly accounts for much of his enduring appeal.
There are still plenty of contemporary Karl Mays churning out Westerns in Europe even today. I know of several in Poland and the former East Germany. But my favorite is the Norwegian writer Kjell Hallbing, who has written over eighty five Westerns and sold maybe twenty million books about his fictional creation Morgan Kane.
In the beginning, Hallbing used to turn out a book a month. By the age of thirty two he could afford to retire from his job in an Oslo bank. Like Karl May, he had never actually visited the United States. "I just faked it" he candidly admits. Since those early days, of course, he's traveled often to the USA. Interestingly, Kjell says he only found one serious factual error in those early books. He had his hero swim a river in Arizona that, when he actually got there turned out to flow underground.
Hallbing insists his books are really not Westerns at all. They're a retelling of classic Norse myths in a Western setting. His Hero Morgan Kane, it's been pointed out, bears an uncanny resemblance to any good introverted Norwegian boy.
Kjell Hallbing's hero, of course, is a cowboy, not an Indian. Much of Europe's fascination with the cowboy is due to one man - Buffalo Bill - and his Wild West Show that toured up and down Europe for the better part of twenty years a century ago. Many obscure provincial towns in Germany or Czechoslovakia, even today, proudly boast Buffalo Bill museums. There are still people alive who can recall seeing the great man.
The Wild West Show literally made dreams reality for millions of young boys and girls. The flamboyant Buffalo Bill was Europe's idea of a contemporary knight. He was a character straight out of the pages of the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Cody probably did more than any man before or since to give a face to the New World.
Karl May, for example, took to dressing up like Buffalo Bill until he was sued for misrepresentation.
Cody's show popularized Cowboys and Indians and spawned a host of contemporary Western pursuits that once again tell us much more about Europe than about the Wild West.