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What Constitutes Deus Ex Machina?

What constitutes deus ex machina? My computer dictionary defines the term as “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, esp. as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.” This question is especially pertinent because I’ve […]
| May 20, 2009 | No comments |

What constitutes deus ex machina? My computer dictionary defines the term as “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, esp. as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.” This question is especially pertinent because I’ve been looking at God in fiction over at A Christian Worldview of Fiction (see posts here, here, here, and here). Then during the current CSFF Blog Tour for Stephen R. Lawhead’s final installment of the King Raven Trilogy, Tuck, one reviewer suggested that deus ex machina raised its ugly head to spoil the end of the epic myth.

Really?

SPOILER ALERT

In Tuck, Rhi Bran y Hud (a Welsh Robin Hood), realizing that he is out-manned, rides north to plead with his mother’s relatives to help him in his quest against the Normans. After Bran performs admirably in service of his relative king, he leaves the north without the support he sought. However, in the end, as Bran is preparing for the ultimate confrontation with King William the Red, his relatives, and Mérian’s as well, ride to the rescue.

Deus ex machina?

Granted, this ending is not God showing up to save the day, though much is said about prayer, but that an unexpected force showed up to rescue a seemingly hopeless situation certainly smacks of authorial contrivance, doesn’t it?

Well, no, it doesn’t, I would argue. The operative word, in my opinion, is “unexpected.” If an author lays proper groundwork so that a reader can entertain the suggestion that just maybe help will come from this outside source, then I don’t believe the forbidden deus ex machina has been employed.

This is an important point I think, especially for Christian writers. Unless we make room for God to act in our stories, then we essentially bow to the conventional wisdom of society that all we need to overcome can be found within us. As Christians, we know that to be false. Why, then, would we write stories that show us overcoming apart from God?

And if our characters involve God, in fact if they rely upon Him and take Him into consideration throughout the story, even to the point of delaying combat to pursue peace since that is the way of God, then readers should rightfully expect Him to show up in the end. Consequently, His intervention (or forces sent by Him in answer to prayer) doesn’t qualify as deus ex machina.

The key component, if writers are to successfully incorporate God in fiction, is the work the author must put in to make the end action expected—without being predictable. Mr. Lawhead did that in Tuck.

If Rhi Bran had never ridden north, never saved his relatives’ king, never put himself in their indebtedness, then to have them show up in the end would have been a perfect example of deus ex machina. But Mr. Lawhead is much too skilled to create a story with that kind of end. Instead, he led readers to believe that Bran’s efforts to bring help from the north had failed. Then and only then did that help arrive. As a surprise, not as a contrived authorial stunt.

Take some time to see what other bloggers on the CSFF tour have to say about Tuck:

Brandon Barr Jim Black Justin Boyer not on the original list Keanan Brand Rachel Briard Grace Bridges Valerie Comer Karri Compton not on the original list Amy Cruson CSFF Blog Tour Stacey Dale D. G. D. Davidson Jeff Draper April Erwin Karina Fabian Alex Field Beth Goddard Andrea Graham not on the original list Todd Michael Greene Ryan Heart Timothy Hicks Christopher Hopper Joleen Howell Becky Jesse Cris Jesse Jason Joyner Kait Carol Keen Krystine Kercher Dawn King Terri Main Margaret Melissa Meeks Rebecca LuElla Miller Caleb Newell Eve Nielsen Nissa John W. Otte John Ottinger Epic Rat Steve Rice Crista Richey Hanna Sandvig Chawna Schroeder James Somers Rachel Starr Thomson Robert Treskillard Steve Trower Fred Warren Phyllis Wheeler Jill Williamson

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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