Imagine that you’re at the movies enjoying a nice tub of popcorn and a stunning movie that you’ll be talking about non-stop for the next two weeks. The action has you on the edge of your seat as you watch the characters struggle to survive an impossible situation. You see absolutely no way that they can reasonably pull out a win before being killed by the villain’s dastardly plot. Suddenly, a pterodactyl swoops out of the sky and snaps the villain up in its massive beak before flying off into the sunset.
Maybe this ending is satisfying for you—The villain was defeated, the day was saved, and everyone went home happy. Maybe you felt entirely let down by this throw-away ending— the heroes totally could have pulled something off without that pterodactyl stealing all the glory. Whatever emotions you feel about this ending, you’ve just experienced a great literary device: Deus ex Machina.
8 Nights of God from the Machine
December is a festive time of year for many, with Kwanzaa, Chanukkah, Christmas, Yule, and New Years Eve as some of the holidays brightening homes around the globe. I myself am celebrating the beginning of Chanukkah this evening and busily decorating for Christmas.
The December festivities have been in full swing here on WordPress too, with many bloggers writing about 12 days of anime, disseminating gift ideas for the gamer in your life, and other holiday-themed blogs. I too wanted to get in on the holiday spirit, and have crafted Eight Nights of Deus ex Machina in celebration of Chanukkah.
Why Deus ex Machina? I’m glad you asked! At first, I thought about releasing a collection of Chanukkah tropes found in pop culture, but I realized that it’s been a good while since I wrote a proper literary device post. But what literary device could represent a holiday celebrating both an improbable war victory against all odds and the miracle of a one-night oil supply lasting for eight? What kind of literary device covers divine intervention?
And then the answer hit me like a divine intervention…
The Inner Workings of Deus ex Machina
Deus ex Machina is a Latin term that translates to “God from the machine.” It describes those moments in a story where a seemingly impossible-to-solve problem is suddenly fixed by an uninvolved and/or unexpected character, power, or object. The term originates from ancient Greek theater. In plays, it was common to have an improbable scenario solved by a god (deus) or other ethereal bring who came swooping in on a crane (no, not a bird, but a machine!) to save the day, usually in the end of the story.
Here are a few important things to keep in mind about this literary device moving forward:
- It can happen at any point, though it commonly occurs toward the end.
- Whatever happens, it happens unexpectedly, and is usually acted out by forces other than the main characters’ actions (an external force comes in and saves the day, like the pterodactyl mentioned at the beginning of this post). If some clever thinking or common sense helps resolve the problem (no matter how ridiculous the outcome), it is not Deus ex Machina.
- It is always a solution to a problem that has been presented as hopeless or impossible. Deus ex Machina never makes a problem worse. Plot twists are not the same as divine intervention, even if it was a deity that pulled the twist!
This literary device is interesting in that it is considered by some as a brilliant narrative tool, and by others as lazy writing. Really, it can go either way, depending largely on the author, the situation, and the audience’s personal preference. Instances of life-saving magic, ghostly intervention, or characters being in the right place at the right time receive both praise for being fun, and flack for being an easy-out for the author.
Is it lazy writing when a witch’s mysterious powers activate themselves to save someone’s life in a way that she never knew she could? Is it brilliant when a ghostly grandmother rescues her unconscious granddaughter from a raging river? In most cases, there is no clear answer— it is a matter of personal opinion.
First Night: Cardcaptor Sakura
Let’s start the Festival with a childhood favorite of mine, Cardcaptor Sakura. There are several notable moments of Deus ex Machina used at various points in Clamp’s 1996 anime, but I wanted to focus on one in particular. (There will be spoilers for the 6th episode of the first season.)
In the 6th episode, “Sakura and Memories of her Mother,“ Sakura finds herself chasing after a ghost. She follows the apparition to a cliff, where it reveals itself to be her mother and beckons to her. Not seeing the danger until it is too late, Sakura allows the apparition to lead her off of the cliff. As she falls, seemingly to her death, an external force comes to her rescue: the transparent hand of a woman catches her wrist and slows her fall, delivering her safely into the arms of her brother’s best friend who happened to be passing by (who was possibly a Deus ex Machina mechanic from a discarded version of the story).
Sakura’s otherworldly rescue is an example of Deus ex Machina because the ghost (assumedly her mother) is not alluded to beforehand and has nothing to do with a choice that Sakura makes. Ghosts, magic, and other otherworldly mechanics coming to the rescue at the last second are some of my favorite examples of this literary device.
And as always, if you have a literary device you want to know more about, or a game, comic, show, or movie that you want to see make an appearance on the blog, leave a shout-out in the comments!