Many a budding literary scholar is happy to mock deus ex machina wherever it appears. We’re often taught that this device is used only by incompetent writers or film directors who drive their characters into impossible situations but are too weak to allow the story to take its natural course. Of course, when the characters seem to escape by their own means, we love it—Houdini did this in real life and is justly famous. But when they’re rescued by an outside force, we feel cheated.
We typically rejoice when others are rescued from danger; why not here? Characters in a story aren’t real people, so this isn’t an act of uncharity (however often this might be the case in real life). Instead, we feel betrayed by the conventions of storytelling. Aristotle rightly observes that a story should proceed from internal principles. Once the premise of a story is set up, the reader expects events to proceed according to what has preceded them. If we had been told that all of Joseph’s brothers were excited to kill him, we would expect him to stay in the pit and die—but the sacred author mentions that one of his brothers was sympathetic, so his rescue can follow from this principle. No deus ex machina was needed to save Joseph’s life.
Smaller violations of this principle are often named as “plot holes,” with the epithet deus ex machina reserved for particularly egregious offenses. Why is deus ex machina so irritating? Perhaps it’s because the experience of being trapped in a corner is all too familiar to us. If we aren’t rescued by a god in a crane, why should Medea be?
Not all authors have shunned deus ex machina, however. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Eagles appear suddenly to save the main characters of The Lord of the Rings from certain death on the side of an exploding volcano, and this is not their only such rescue. Such a powerful and unexpected force is often accused of being simply deus ex machina, and this charge is hard to deny. But Tolkien was a classically-trained English professor who ought to have known better, and he doesn’t seem to be writing satirically. What’s going on here? If we assume that Tolkien, like any other author, was writing out of his own experience and reflection on the world, we arrive at a startling conclusion: Tolkien’s Eagles are a dramatic representation of God at work in His world.
God always loves us, but we often don’t notice while we’re happy. It’s when we’re angry or sorrowful or oppressed by our daily struggles—when we’ve written our own story into a corner—that the slightest touch of grace jumps out at us. Whether it’s a friend’s smile or the inexplicable direct touch of the Lord in prayer, some small act of love can pierce our darkness and remind us that the Lord has conquered! One purpose of fantasy is precisely to exaggerate these extraordinary features of the real world that often go unnoticed, and so the small source of encouragement becomes a giant Eagle soaring through the sky.
But isn’t this cheating? Maybe in real life our struggles are ultimately solved by God, so deus ex machina isn’t unrealistic after all. But that still makes for a pretty boring story. Aristotle had a point: the best stories are driven by internal principles.
But God is an internal principle! The world is not some big machine being pushed around by God, but a great work of Love. The Author of Creation intimately and continuously causes our being, our very existence. As the saying goes, God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. While infinitely beyond His Creation, God deigns to be always working deep within it, writing the story according to His eternal will despite the flaws of His creatures.
So deus ex machina, when used seriously, is not an authorial failure but an illumination of the work of God. And in the hand of God, story becomes reality. If we let Him, He can be dramatically present in our lives when we’re on the point of failure—or have already failed—and in His great mercy He can heal wounds that are well beyond our own power to fix. God Himself writes stories with deus ex machina! And lest we miss His saving work in our lives, He too gives us a dramatic example: Deus ex Virgine draws life out of death on the Cross.
Image: Hiroshige, Eagle Over 100,000 Acre Plain At Susaki, Fukagawa (Juman-Tsubo)