The Ring Motif
in The Mad King
by Alan Hanson
The use of the symbolic ring can be found scattered throughout
the various series and independent novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. For
the most part, these rings appear in isolation as a symbol of love here
or as a plot device there. In only one novel did Burroughs use the ring
as a motif. A motif is a recurring thematic element used throughout the
development of a story. That Burroughs novel was The Mad King,
the plot of which revolves around the idea of mistaken identity. Two elements
come into play in the repeated interchanging identities of Barney Custer
and King Leopold of Lutha. The first is that the appearance of the two
men is virtually identical, and the second is the rings they wear.
Actually, three rings enter into the plot of the story.
The first one to appear is Barney’s personal seal ring. When the American
first came to Lutha, almost immediately he found himself being mistaken
for the missing King Leopold. In a vain attempt to establish his real identity,
Barney displayed, among other things, his seal ring. Later in the story,
this same ring served a most unusual and gruesome purpose in the plot.
Trying to enter Lutha, Barney was caught by the Austrians and placed with
others before a firing squad. Later, a stranger came wandering among the
bodies. “He ran his fingers along the fingers of the dead,” Burroughs
wrote. “Two rings had rewarded his search and he was busy with a third
that encircled the finger of a body that lay beneath three others. It would
not come off.” This third ring the ghoul was trying to remove was the
seal ring of Barney Custer, who had only been wounded by the firing squad
bullets. The tugging on his ring roused him to consciousness with predictable
effects on the nerves of the would-be thief.
Except for the scene described above, Barney’s seal ring
is a little consequence in the story, since Barney’s possession of it is
never enough to convince anyone that he is an American and not the Luthian
The second ring that appears in the story is much more
important. It is the royal ring of the kings of Lutha. It was the ring
that would mean the difference between life and death for Barney and Leopold.
Each man possessed it twice during the story, and the fate of nations changed
as it passed back and forth between them.
The ring first appeared on the finger of Leopold, who
had been hiding from Peter of Blentz in the sanitarium at Tafelberg. When
Barney found Leopold there, he noticed a plain gold band on the third finger
of the king’s hand, but upon shaking hands, the American felt a large setting
turned inward. “I felt the ruby and four wings of the setting of the
royal ring of the kings of Lutha,” Barney later recalled. The ring
first passed to Barney innocently enough. The paranoid king gave it to
him for safekeeping until such time as it became less dangerous for Leopold
to wear it.
Later, however, Barney was forced to use the ring to stop
the coronation of Peter of Blentz, who had declared Leopold dead. Barney
disrupted the ceremony claiming to be Leopold, and when Peter demanded
proof that the intruder was really the king, “The American raised his
hand, upon the third finger of which gleamed the great ruby of the royal
ring of the kings of Lutha. Even Peter of Blentz started back in surprise
as his eyes fell upon the ring.” Barney had no intention, at this point,
of using the ring to claim the throne for himself. “It is my commission
from the king,” Barney, stretching the truth a bit, explained of the
ring to Lt. Butzow. “Leopold placed in upon my finger in token of his
royal authority to act in his behalf.”
After Barney, posing as the king, defeated Peter’s army
on the battlefield, the real Leopold was restored to the throne. The royal
ring of Lutha was returned to Leopold at this time by Barney, just a short
time before the ungrateful king forced the American to flee the country.
Later, after Barney returned to Lutha, yet a third ring
played a part in the story. After crossing into Lutha from Austria, Barney
came across Emma van der Tann, who was fleeing from Leopold’s soldiers.
In a village, Barney borrowed Emma’s solitaire diamond ring to cut a hole
in a garage window so they could steal a car. One would think he would
have returned the ring to her after it had served its purpose, but instead
he kept it. He would produce it at an opportune time later in the story.
Shortly afterwards, the royal ring of Lutha changed hands
again. Barney was captured and sentenced to death at Blentz by Leopold.
He escaped and made his way to the king’s room, where he forced Leopold
to change clothes with him. Barney also compelled the king to give him
the royal ring, which the American slipped onto his own finger.
At this point, Barney had in his possession all three
of the rings that played a part in the story. It came at a crossroads for
Barney Custer. He could have reclaimed his own identity or he could have
assumed Leopold’s name and throne by using the royal ring. Emma’s fate
was in his hands, as well. A Burroughs hero could never be less than honest
with the woman he loved, however, and after posing as Leopold to lead Lutha’s
troops to a battlefield victory over the Austrians, Barney returned Emma’s
ring to her as proof he was really Barney Custer and not King Leopold.
The royal ring never seemed to leave Barney’s possession,
however, and that fact weakens somewhat the conclusion of the story. After
the battle that saved Lutha’s sovereignty, Barney returned to Blentz, still
intent on once again restoring Leopold to his throne. In the night, however,
Leopold stole back his clothes, which had been left hanging up by Barney.
No mention, however, is made of Leopold taking back the royal ring, and,
in fact, the frightened and timid Leopold would never have attempted removing
the ring from the hand of the sleeping American. The ring, which had always
been required previously as proof of kingship in Lutha, had seemingly been
forgotten by the author. With no more than his royal clothes as proof of
identity, all parties once again accepted him as the king. He even nearly
pulled off a royal marriage with Emma. Peter’s agent finally put an end
to the game of musical kings by entering the cathedral and cancelling the
nuptials by shooting Leopold dead.
A reluctant Barney, apparently still in possession of
the royal ring, took the crown of Lutha. He married Emma and thereby, presumably,
added still another ring, this of the wedding variety, to his already crowded
hand. In the absence of a sequel, it is supposed that Barney and his wife
lived happily ever after. Still, one can’t help imaging all the feelings
that must have run through his mind down through the years each time he
glanced at the rings on his fingers. There was his own seal ring, recalling
a commoner’s youth in Nebraska. There was the wedding ring, symbolizing
a love, the winning of which required crisscrossing an ocean and the risking
of his life many times over. Then there was the royal ring of the kings
of Lutha, for which dozens had intrigued and thousands had died on the
battlefield. Surely the baubles adorning his hands recalled for Barney
Custer enough adventure and romance to fill several lifetimes.
— The End —