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Volume 7190

by Alan Hanson

 Rings, Symbolism, and Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Alan Hanson
South of the Bay of Naples, on the mountainous island of Capri, in the year 36 AD, the Roman Emperor Tiberius lay dying. At his bedside his designated heir, Caligula, grew impatient to assume the purple and tried to remove the signet ring from the hand of the dying man. But Tiberius clenched his fist, clinging to his ring, his throne, and his life. With a hand to the throat of his emperor, Caligula ended the life of Tiberius, and then the ring and the power it symbolized slipped easily off one’s finger and on to another’s. 

The use of the ring in fiction has long been popular, as it is an object that can be injected with great symbolic meaning. For instance, in the scene above, described by Edgar Rice Burroughs in I Am a Barbarian, the ring is much more than just a decorative bauble. It represents power, in this case the power to rule a world. The struggle for its possession at the moment of death is symbolic of the corruption that comes with the ownership of such great power.

From time to time, in the great body of his work, Edgar Rice Burroughs used the ring and its symbolism to embellish his stories and to move his plots along. He used rings in a number of different settings and situations, but generally his use of them can be divided into two major categories, the first as a symbol of love and the second as a symbol of power.

Rings and Romance

It is an old riddle that asks, “What binds two people together while touching only one?” The answer, a wedding ring, is something that is worn by surprisingly few Burroughs characters. The author did use such a ring during a couple of touching, informal wedding ceremonies. Near the end of Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’, death seemed near when a Japanese ship closed in on the tiny sailing vessel carrying Tarzan and others in their attempt to sail from Sumatra to Australia. As Japanese shells burst in the water around them, each one drawing closer to the defenseless proa, the American pilot Jerry Lucas slipped a class ring from his finger and put it on the finger of Corrie van der Meer. “With this ring, I do thee wed,” he declared, “and with all my worldly goods endow.” Both thought it was a ceremony marking the end of their lives, but fate intervened in the form of a British submarine, and the ring instead marked the beginning of their life together.

Another Burroughs wedding took place when Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones took the stone-age girl Nadara for his bride on a remote island in The Cave Girl. “In my own land, we shall be mated,” Waldo told her. “None other shall wed with Nadara, and as proof that she is Thandar’s she shall wear this always.” From his finger, then, Waldo slipped a “splendid solitaire” and placed it on the third finger of Nadara’s hand. At that moment, the cave girl could not have understood the symbolism of that simple ceremony, but it was obvious later that it had become very clear to her. When Waldo’s mother doubted that her son could have loved such a common girl, Nadara displayed the ring and responded, “This is the proof that he loved me. He told me that this was the pledge token between us until we could come to his land and be mated according to the customs there.

In these two scenes from Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’ and The Cave Girl, Burroughs used the ring as the traditional symbol of mature, reciprocated love. In both cases, a legal marriage ceremony in civilization would simply be a formality, or as a custom, as Nadara noted. The real commitment to love was made at the moment the ring was transferred from one hand to another.

The Missing Wedding Ring

Just as symbolic as a ring is at a wedding ceremony, its absence on such an occasion can be just as meaningful. Take for example, the most famous Burroughs wedding of all. When the bride’s father solemnized the marriage of Tarzan and Jane in The Return of Tarzan, no mention was made of an exchange of rings. Of course, it could be argued that such an exchange was just one of several details innocently omitted by Burroughs, but if so, the later character development of the ape-man made it a significant omission. Even at this early point in the series, Burroughs may have recognized that Tarzan, representing as he did a desire for unrestricted freedom in man, could not be closely bound to another human being, even a wife. Whatever may have run through Burroughs’ mind when he married Tarzan and Jane, the fact remains that throughout the two dozen subsequent stories in which he appears, Tarzan is never depicted wearing a ring, wedding or otherwise.

The Great Ring of the House of Greystoke

Of course, while he apparently did not wear it, Tarzan is known to have owned a ring. When the remains of Tarzan’s father were being laid to rest by the cabin on the beach, William Clayton discovered a massive gold ring on a slender bone of the dead man’s hand. After examining it, Clayton announced gravely, “Here is the great ring of the House of Greystoke which has been lost since my uncle, John Clayton, the former Lord Greystoke, disappeared.” Burroughs never mentioned this ring again, but presumably William Clayton would have taken it back to England and given it to his father, then Lord Greystoke. The ring would then have passed to William Clayton on his father’s death and then on to Tarzan upon Clayton’s death at the end of The Return of Tarzan. Where Tarzan kept this ring is unknown, but surely it was not upon his finger.

Any suggestion of confinement or restriction, or any symbol thereof, was foreign to the character of Tarzan of the Apes, as developed through the years by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Tarzan’s love for Jane was obviously loyal, but it was neither passionate nor confining. A ring on his finger would have been a constant reminder to Tarzan, and the reader, of his responsibility elsewhere. Tarzan, as a symbol of unrestrained freedom, could be allowed no such commitment.

Jane, however, was a product of restrictive civilization, and so was known to have worn rings. In Tarzan the Untamed, the sight of those rings brought despair to the ape-man. Returning to find his home destroyed by German soldiers, Tarzan found the burned body of his mate. “For a moment he had hoped against hope that the blackened corpse was not the body of his mate,” Burroughs noted, “but when his eyes discovered and recognized the rings the last ray of hope forsook him.” Of course, Hauptmann Schneider’s diary recorded that he, “had von Gross substitute the body of a dead Negress and char it after putting Lady Greystoke’s rings on it.” It is interesting, however, that while Jane’s rings are mentioned a second time in Tarzan and the Golden Lion, in neither case is it confirmed that one of them is a wedding ring.

The Ring of Bertrade

The most eloquent statement in Burroughs’ fiction about a ring as a symbol of love and devotion was voiced by Norman in The Outlaw of Torn. Not knowing he was really the outlaw Norman, Bertrade had given Roger de Condé a “beautifully wrought ring with a single opal” as a sign of her love and as an invitation to return someday and “take her” against her father’s wishes. When Norman again spoke with Bertrade over a year later, it was not to claim her, but to reveal his true identity and to release Bertrade from her love avowal. The exchange between the two at that meeting demonstrated that the chivalry and love symbolized by this ring transcended the rigid constraints of Medieval English society. “Here is the ring you gave me in token of friendship,” said Norman. “Take it. The hand that wore it has done no wrong by the light that has been given it as guide. The blood that has pulsed through the finger that it circled came from a heart that beat for Bertrade de Montfort: a heart that shall continue to beat for her alone until a merciful providence sees fit to gather in a wasted and useless life.” Standing over the kneeling Norman of Torn, Bertrade responded, “Keep the ring. The friendship of Bertrade de Montfort is not lightly given nor lightly taken away, nor is her love.

Rings and Power

When he used a ring as a symbol of love, Burroughs was injecting emotion, an element of romance, into his stories. In contrast, when he used a ring to symbolize power, it was a storytelling device that helped push the plot along. In general, at times Burroughs used a ring to enable a hero to quickly pass through one or more potentially dangerous situations. Of course, Burroughs could, and often did, have his hero fight his way through such confrontations, but when he was in a hurry to move the action along, a ring was just the thing.

For instance, while in a restaurant in the Zani city of Amlot, Carson Napier befriended Zerka, the influential double agent in Carson of Venus. To help Carson, who was on an undercover mission, Zerka slipped a ring from one of her fingers and gave it to Carson. “Here, take this and wear it,” she told him. “It will substantiate your claim to my friendship.” First, the ring got Carson past two Zani guards, who confronted him in a travellers’ house. Later, when being questioned by Torko, the warden of the Zani prison in Amlot, the ring came to Carson’s assistance again. Torko asked Carson if he knew anybody high in the favor of the Zani leader Mephis. “I was about to reply,” reported Carson, “when he caught sight of the ring hanging on a chain around my neck. It was too small to fit on any of my fingers: I wore it thus.” Torko was impressed. “I should say you do know someone close to Mephis,” he exclaimed. “The Tonganga Zerka! Man! but you are lucky!” Carson was then given free access to explore the prison, something that would not have been allowed but for the ring.

For plotting purposes, then, the ring device allowed Burroughs to quickly change Carson’s status in Amlot from that of suspicious stranger to that of trusted Zani official, putting him in a position to complete his mission. Burroughs used the ring here to simplify (some would say overly so) the transition between plot elements and to move the action along.

Kings’ Rings

There are a couple of other notable examples of Burroughs using a ring of power as a plot element. In Jungle Girl, Gordon King was the beneficiary of two rings given him in the jungles of Cambodia. The first provided some protection in the city of Pnom Dhek for the American after he had fallen into disfavor with King Beng Kher, despite having delivered the king’s daughter Fou-tan home safely from captivity in the rival city of Lodidhapura. One of Fou-tans attendants appeared to Gordon King in his apartment. “She sent this to you as a sign that you may trust me also,” said the servant, as he handed King, “a tiny ring, a beautiful example of the goldsmith’s art. It was strung upon a golden chain.” The American was told to wear it about his neck. “It will take you safely many places in Pnom Dhek,” the servant explained. “Only the king’s authority is greater than this.”

Later, after Gordon King had escaped from Pnom Dhek, the ring was seen again as the American confronted the wounded Beng Kher after a battle between Pnom Dhek and Lodidhapura. “From beneath his cuirass and his leather tunic the American withdrew a tiny ring that was suspended about his neck by a golden chain, and when Beng Kher saw it he voiced an exclamation of surprise.” It was only then that Beng Kher recognized the man who had dared to love his daughter. After taking Beng Kher to a place of safety, King announced his intention to return to Pnom Dhek to save Fou-tan from the clutches of the evil Bharata Rahon. Beng Kher then removed a “massive” ring from one of his fingers and gave it to King. “Take this,” he said. “In Pnom Dhek it will confer upon you the authority of Beng Kher, the King. Use it as you see fit to save Fou-tan and bring Bharata Rahon to justice.” The ring was later to serve its purpose. After killing Bharata Rahon, the American was trapped in an audience chamber surrounded by partisans of the dead prince. Resistance to him died, however, when he proclaimed, “I bring you the authority of your own King.” With that, he produced Beng Kher’s ring for all in the room to see. Beng Kher had previously died of his wounds, but his power reached out through his ring, saving the life of Gordon King, as well as saving Edgar Rice Burroughs the figuring out of a more complicated ending to this particular story.

Rings on Mars

Burroughs used a variation of the “ring of power” theme in The Warlord of Mars. After passing through the Carrion Caves, John Carter and Thuvan Dihn saved the life of Prince Talu, who, in appreciation, arranged for the two men to enter the city of Kadabra, where they hoped to find Dejah Thoris and Thuvia. John Carter reported that, “On parting, he (Talu) slipped upon my finger a curiously wrought ring set with a dead-black, lusterless stone, which appeared more like a bit of bituminous coal than the priceless gem which in reality it is.” Talu explained that the ring was one of four with gems all cut from the same mother stone. The other three were being worn by highly trusted nobles then performing secret missions in the court of Salensus Oll in Kadabra. “Should you come within 50 feet of any of these three you will feel a rapid, pricking sensation in the finger upon which you wear this ring. He who wears one of its mates will experience feeling; it is caused by an electrical action that takes place the moment that two of these gems cut from the same mother stone come within the radius of each other’s power. By it you will know that a friend is at hand upon whom you may depend for assistance in time of need. Should another wearer of one of these gems call upon you for aid do not deny him, and should death threaten you, swallow the ring rather than let it fall into the hands of enemies. Guard it with your life, John Carter, for someday it may mean more than life to you.

Talu’s warning was prophetic. Captured in Kadabra, Carter was being taken to the Pit of Plenty, when he felt a pricking sensation in one of his fingers as he approached a group of guards. As he was being lowered into the pit, the guard who wore the matching ring leaned close to Carter and whispered a single word, “Courage!” Later, Talu’s agent affected the escape of John Carter, who then went on to lead the battle that brought the fall of Kadabra.

Later, John Carter paid tribute to his friend of the ring. “Of such stuff are the men of my beloved Helium,” the Warlord noted, “and when I meet another of their kind, of whatever race or color, my heart goes out to him as it did now to my new friend who had risked his life for me simply because I wore the mate to the ring his ruler had put upon his finger.


As a final note, it should be understood that the occasional use of rings by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his stories was quite in keeping with his overall writing style. Romance was ever an integral part of his stories, and the use of rings and other objects symbolizing love fit nicely into his narratives. As for the use of rings of power as a plot-hastening device, Burroughs has long been criticized for using such “leap frog” tactics in his plots, but it was his style (and obviously a popular one) to concentrate on action and not to complicate the events leading up to it. In fact, the simplified plot is one of the characteristics that made a Burroughs tale “ring” true.

— the end —


From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
I Am A Barbarian
Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’
The Cave Girl
The Return of Tarzan
Tarzan the Untamed
Tarzan and the Golden Lion
The Outlaw of Torn
Carson of Venus
Jungle Girl
Warlord of Mars

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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