There And Draft Again

A Fellowship of Fantasy Writers

Deus Ex Machina in Fantasy fiction June 1, 2013

Filed under: Reading,Writing — thereanddraftagain @ 10:03 am
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Hello everyone,

today I’d like to mention a writing device known as the Deus Ex Machina, which happens to be often used in Fantasy fiction.

prince caspian aslan lucy

What is a Deus Ex Machina?

“A Deus Ex Machina is when some new event, character, ability, or object solves a seemingly unsolvable problem in a sudden, unexpected way. The term is Latin for god from the machine and has its origins in ancient Greek theater. It referred to scenes in which a crane (machina) was used to lower actors or statues playing a god (deus) onto the stage to set things right, often near the end of the play.”

Any examples?

There are many in Fantasy fiction, from Aslan saving the day in every book of The Chronicles of Narnia to the dragons’ magic only working in times of need in Eragon. However, J.R.R. Tolkien is the one who used this device extensively in all his stories. In The Hobbit, Bilbo and the dwarves are saved time and again by the miraculous interventions of Gandalf and the Eagles.

The Hobbit Eagle

The Hobbit Gandalf

What’s wrong with a Deus Ex Machina?

After all, coincidences do happen in real life, and the reader wants the hero to win, doesn’t he? Yes, but the reader is also entitled to a satisfying ending. And a Deus Ex Machina rarely provides it, because the coincidence feels unnatural and lazy. As if the writer couldn’t sort out his own plot, and he resorted to pulling a god out of his hat to save the hero and solve all the plot holes.

So should you include a Deus Ex Machina in your Fantasy novel? Why not. But know what is it and when to use it. Know that it’s a trope readers are acutely aware of and they rarely forgive.

Do you use a Deus Ex Machina in your novel? Does it feel like  you’re taking the easy way out by using it or not? Feel free to leave us a comment below!

And happy writing!

EM Castellan


6 Responses to “Deus Ex Machina in Fantasy fiction”

  1. katemsparkes Says:

    Ooh, good topic!

    I really try not to use it, because I hate when it happens in books and movies. It feels like cheating, and it’s not hard to avoid. Actually, I was thinking about this the other night when my husband and I were watching the movie Beerfest (which is decidedly NOT fantasy, but still). There’s a very tongue-in-cheek use of deus ex machina, and even the self-awareness of it didn’t keep it from ticking me off.

    It shouldn’t be hard to avoid if we give our characters the tools they need to solve their problems, and if coincidences and surprises are set up properly. For example, in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, [SPOILER] the time-turner would have felt like deus ex machina if Dumbledore had just showed up and handed it to Harry and Hermione when problems became too hard to solve without it. Instead, it’s worked into the story through the mystery of Hermione’s impossible class schedule, preparing readers for the existence of this tool even before we have any idea what it might be. There might be other issues with that tool, and the entire climax of the story is based on the existence of this one convenient piece of magical technology, but because the groundwork was laid earlier, it doesn’t feel like JK Rowling wrote herself into a corner and went, “dangit, I need a TIME MACHINE!”

    And that’s what deus ex machina always feels like to me: sloppy planning that allowed characters to be backed into a corner, and a writer who couldn’t be bothered to revise the early story to provide a believable escape. I’m not saying I’d absolutely never use it (I have a character in my back pocket for just such an occasion), but I can’t think right now of a case where it would be necessary.

    I’d love to hear about cases of books/movies in any genre (written for adults) where people think it WAS used well.

  2. Funnily enough I just watched the Hobbit movie with the children today, and was thinking how absolutely convenient it was those eagles turned up when they did. Especially because they flew in to the rescue in TLOTR as well, even though it was posited that they couldn’t be summoned, and wouldn’t get involved otherwise. (Much like the Elves I felt at times). At least in the Hobbit, Gandalf did send the moth off to find them rather than them just happening to appear. (Trust me to always have a Tolkien opinion).

    A great post though, because I think you’re right. I’ll let Tolkien off with a lot, and Lewis for that matter, because I’ve grown up with them and love their stories. Not so much with newer authors though. I’m all for using with caution and avoiding if possible.

    • I’m reminded of a phrase that is often used to criticise early writing; ‘And with a bound, Jack was free.’ This is rather generic example of a character being provided with the means for a miraculous escape in the form of a device that hadn’t previously been hinted at. I forgave JRR and his eagles because, as Raewyn pointed out, they’d been introduced in ‘Fellowship’ to provide Gandalf with an equally miraculous escape. In ‘Return’, they didn’t so much provide a miraculous escape as a reassurance that the heroes weren’t going to perish horribly after their task had been completed. That escape had the flavour of JRR being told ‘You can’t burn the Hobbits in lava – get them away from there. I don’t care how fitting it is that they die.’
      Scattering clues about the ‘miracle device’ throughout the tale is the best method of softening the ‘blow’, although if it performed clumsily the reader / viewer will spot this and think ‘I’m being shown that for a reason…I wonder if it will be significant later. Oh, what a surprise. Not.’ James Bond gadgets are transparent in this.

    • Aldrea Alien Says:

      I actually found the presence of the eagles more believeable in the Hobbit. It’s not explained in the movie, but in the book they’d been investigating the warg/goblin presence, saw the fire and then the dwarves which led to them being saved. Whereas in the LotR, they seemed tacked on.

      • Oh you’re right – I had forgotten that. Good point. And to be fair, Tolkien does give a reason why the eagles don’t put their wings up and volunteer to be transport for the whole series…

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