Rings In Your Fingers by Dariel Fitzkee
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii September, 2000)
It is easy to deride the Linking Rings these days—too easy, perhaps. Despite the ubiquitous nature of the trick, and the claim that laymen have had their fill of it, all one need do is watch lay audiences react to a skilled con-temporary presentation—be it Bob Sheets' or Jeff McBride's takes on Vernon's "Symphony of the Rings," David Ben's approach to the otherwise rarely seen Jack Miller routine, Jonathan Pendragon's distinctively physical stylization, or three-ring versions by comic magician Chris Capehart, or dramatic neo-classicist David Oliver here in the Northeast—to understand that while magicians may be sick of the trick, the public never seems to tire of expert interpretations.
There are those—for example my colleague, Michael Close—who reject Linking Rings along with Cups and Balls and Egg Bags as apparatus contrived solely for the world of the conjuror, and thereby too suspect to present reasonably and with any self-respect to paying modern audiences. While I generally share this distaste for contrived props—it is one of the key reasons that Die Boxes and Square Circles became relegated to kids' show magic by the late 20th century—nevertheless, I do believe that these three classic props have earned exceptions to the rule against the use of embarrassingly contrived contraptions for the purposes of demonstrating one's alleged control over the immutable, universal, physical forces of the universe.
This is because despite the fact that the audience recognizes that those gleaming steel rings and copper cups and mysterious little cloth bags exist only in the dimension of the magic shop universe and nowhere else, the apparent simplicity of these props, and the recognized obviousness of their distinctive characteristics, contribute to an audience's sense of confidence that they understand the nature of these properties, to a degree that to accomplish something amazing with them in fact remains ... amazing. Thus while an audience may readily dismiss magic with most contrived props—Who cares if I don't know how the trick works, it obviously has something to with that ridiculous box"—nevertheless, the Rings, Cups and Balls, and Egg Bag, when masterfully handled, can still amaze and enchant an audience because of the fundamental simplicity of their form.
Thus the performer faces the challenge of convincing the audience that an Egg Bag is simply an unprepared cloth bag; the copper cup is nothing but an old yet uncomplicated, universal cup; and the steel ring is a continuous, unbroken band of steel—eternally separate and impenetrable, without edge or corner to conceal a break in the pattern. These are the challenges of skillful sleight-of-hand handling—to convince the audience of these unassailable (we hope!) truths. (Then again, there are comedic versions of the Rings, done with hangars or barbed wire, that sacrifice the sense of mystery in return for comedic and entertainment opportunities—a perfectly respectable choice if you are willing to face the truth of the sacrifice, and not deny that once there is a corner or imperfection in the circular band, the mystery of the penetration is substantially dissipated.)
If one wishes to study the Linking Rings one can do little better than to master Dai Vernon's timeless Symphony of the Rings, described in The Dai Vernon Book of Magic and now available again as a separate manuscript (both published by L&L Publishing; reviewed in Genii December 1994 and July 1997, respectively [in my review of the Vernon manuscript, I mention that the count described in Fitzkee's book, using an over-sized ring, was likely the uncredited invention of Dick Cardini). Other distinctive routines can be found throughout the literature, often in manuscripts devoted entirely to that limited purpose, including the routines of Whit Haydn, Richard Ross, Jack Miller, and many more. Then again, much material can be found in bits and pieces in disparate sources, from Tarbell to Cellini: The Royal Touch. But if the student wishes to study a broad spectrum of ring material before narrowing down selections and creating a routine—as most any developing and self-respecting practitioner would do in creating his or her own distinctive Ambitious Card routine, for example—then one would absolutely not want to overlook this book, first published by Dariel Fitzkee (a.k.a. Fitzroy) in 1946.
Reprinted by Lloyd Jones in 1977, and since acquired by Lee Jacobs, the book is a timeless guide—for a bargain price—to the classic trick (albeit that Fitzkee makes reference to its Oriental origins, although the effect's earliest antecedents appear to have actually been European). One need only review the 11 chapter headings to know that this is an indispensable volume: including Methods of Counting; Substitutions and Exchanges; Simulated Linking and Unlinking, Methods of Linking; Secreting and Securing the Key Ring; The Figures; Ending the Routine; Routines with Key Rings; Routines Without Using a Key Ring; and Final Suggestions and Ideas.
Fitzkee, the author of the classic must-read trilogy of magic theory inevitably tied to his name (i.e., The Trick Brain, Magic and Showmanship, and his masterpiece, Magic By Misdirection, all currently published by Jacobs), was thankfully unafraid to state his preferences and dislikes, and so it is with delight that I re-read his comments on the shapes and figures that have long been a part of the Linking Ring vocabulary. Fitzkee unambiguously characterized this element of the Linking Rings as the "illegitimate child of art gone psychopathic and magic with delirium tremens," and suggested that the "formation of the figures, many of which resemble in no whit what they are supposed to imitate, obtrudes disastrously upon the building up of the penetration illusion to its most effective climax." Yes, I have seen exceptions—but they are few and far between.
The book is filled with focused practical advice, such as the obvious but sometimes neglected point that "The performer must never seem to search for particular rings." The author provides outlines of a number of routines by famous practitioners, including those of Robert-Houdin, Mme. Patrice (recognizable to readers of C. Lang Neil's The Modern Conjuror), Edwin Sachs, Professor Hoffmann, Blackstone, Sr., Jean Hugard, Chung Ling Soo, Odin, John Northern Hilliard, and several of his own devise. While the reproduction is nothing special—the title page photograph looks like it was left in the pocket of a pair of stone-washed jeans—the price is irresistible, and the material is invaluable to any serious student of this effect, one which at every penetration holds the potential for captivated delight or exquisite boredom—depending on your own personal interpretation.