Author Topic: Deus Ex Machina  (Read 6566 times)

42

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Deus Ex Machina
« on: December 31, 2003, 05:34:35 PM »
So with Lord of the Rings I have been hearing the phrase “deus ex machina” being thrown around. So I’ve been what does “deus ex machina” mean? So I looked is up on dictionary.com. Apparently it refers to Greek and Roman plays where they would lower a machine god onto the stage who would miraculously resolve the conflict of the play.

So what so bad about that? I think it comes down to how well the deity resolves the conflicts. Let’s use Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes. The movie is an alright, somewhat discombobulated remake. Until the monkey is lowered out of the sky and all the problems disappear. The problem is that the monkey doesn’t really resolve any of the problems, but the storytellers use it as an excuse to ignore the previous conflict. Bad deus ex machina monkey, bad.

So if deus ex machina is so annoying then why do storytellers still use it? Well, because it can work sometimes, particularly if it is the theme of the story. Deus ex machina doesn’t bother me in Lord of the Rings because it kind of a theme in the story. First it’s used repeatedly which gives it some credibility. Also, LotR and books like the Chronicles of Narnia, rely on the concept the there is a God that helps in unexplained ways. Also, that individuals need divine help to accomplish great things. LotR also makes use of Satan ex machina having many unexplained bad things happening. (Tolkien, “hmmm…I just had them defeat a bunch of orcs. I can’t use orcs again. Let’s drop in a Balrog. I don’t know what that is, but it has got to be really bad.)

Course many people find it easier to accept that problems can happen for no reason, but have a difficult time accepting that solutions can also happen for no reason. That is why we have prozac.

So does this make sense? Or is deus ex machina just bad no matter what?
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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #1 on: December 31, 2003, 05:43:05 PM »
Deus ex is, in my opinion, not always bad.

In fact, I see many climaxes being a 'Deus Ex' of one sort or another.  In my mind, it's a continuum--a scale of how justified your climax was.  A well-foreshadowed or well-developed sudden salvation when all seems lost is actually a very fulfilling plot device.

Tolkien is very much into Deus Ex endings, but I think he does them well.  The movies take away from this, because of the aforementioned condensing, but there's still usually some foreshadowing.

Lets look at several of the movie versions, and put them on the scale.  The best, I think, is Gandalf's appearance at the end of the Two Towers.  This is a well-foreshadowed appearances; he even told them he would appear on the dawn of the third day.  It works so well because we're anticipating Gandalf's return, we're reminded that we're anticipating it right before he comes, yet we are still uncertain how he will save the day.  When he appears with an army we have forgotten, yet one that was very justified in appearing, there is a moment of glorious realization, and the day is saved.  This is an excellent climax, though it is a 'deus ex,' since the heroes were saved by an outside force.

A lesser use of Deus Ex comes when Aragorn leads the ghosts out to smack down some orcs.  This appearance is foreshadowed, true, but it is too convenient.  The reason Sprig disliked it is because the story hadn't 'earned' such an easy end to the battle.  We are left thinking 'well, if Aragorn can do that, then what was the point of all those other battles everyone fought?'  He led too powerful a force into battle, brought it literally out of nowhere, and invalidated everything everyone else had done.

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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #2 on: December 31, 2003, 05:46:55 PM »
actually (and you history fans will want to date this remarkable event) I think I'm 100% agreement with you, 42. Sometimes it's an unthought out way to just resolve everything so you can stop writing or fix an impossible situation. Sometimes it's used as part of the story legitimately.

Eagle Prince

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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #3 on: December 31, 2003, 06:59:56 PM »
How come so many posts have messed up quotation marks, or is that just me?

I don't see where the ending of LotR is dues ex.  If the purple Wizard had shown up, teleported Frodo to Mount Doom, and then tossed the Ring in for him, that would be deus ex.  The two battles EUOL mentioned arn't really deus ex either.  The ending to Planet of the Apes that 42 used as an example, that is deus ex.  People always throw around jargon just for the heck of it.  I don't mean EOUL by that, just if you are hearing a  lot of people say that about LotR.
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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #4 on: December 31, 2003, 07:19:54 PM »
Messed up quotations marks usually come from pasting the text from a program that uses 'smart quotes,' such as Microsoft word.  I try to spell-check my documents in Word, to spare you all my inherent Sanderson Spelling, and sometimes I forget and add a few lines inside of word.  Any quotes or apostrophes in those added lines come out screwy on the board.

I think that you're using too narrow a definition of Deus Ex.  Yes, originally it referred to a deific source saving the heroes and making everything turn out all right.  However, in most recent literary uses, I've seen the term applied to any time that the heroes themselves don't have to solve their problems.  Any time an external force resolves the conflict, that is Deus Ex.

And, as I've said, I believe a continuum is appropriate in discussing the term.  Sometimes the heroes gather the force that saves them, which lets them participate in the conflict resolution.  However, they still aren't the ones saving the day--it's the ghost army that does all the difficult work.

I guess it comes down to what you define as an 'external force.'
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42

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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #5 on: December 31, 2003, 07:42:14 PM »
See saying that the heroes ought to have to save themselves is kind of bogus. It's very appropriate for some stories, but gets kind of rediculous when it's over done.
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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #6 on: December 31, 2003, 08:17:43 PM »
again, it comes down to how it's presented. If the force somes out of no where, than that's not a good application, but if it's specifically hinted at before or led to, then it's not a bad application. Note I'm not quibbling about what is or is not "deus ex machina," just how to use it well.

Eagle Prince

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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #7 on: December 31, 2003, 08:18:27 PM »
Frodo obviously being the main character/hero, Aragorn is the main hero as far as having all the heroic qualities and such.  Nobody expects Strider to just march down into the thick of battle and defeat the army himself.  But it was him who went down there, talked the undead army into fighting for him, got them to the battle, etc.  If not for Aragorn, none of that could have happened.  Victory couldn't be solely contributed to him more than that short of him going in with sword in hand and killing the whole army himself.  The battle at Helm's Deep is more tangled I suppose, but Gandalf is still one of the main characters... he is one of the 9 companions of the Fellowship.  There was also more than the riders of Rohan, there was also the trees from Fangorn that Treebeard sent.  The Ents I could see them counting as an outside force, although I don't think even they count since Merry and Pippin had to talk them into it first.  I think using diplomacy (or whatever you'd call it) to save the day counts every bit as much as strength of arms.  Even if the hero used trickery to win, its still a win.  This actually connects a bit with what I was saying of Elric, how he uses unheroic means to do heroic things.
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42

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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #8 on: December 31, 2003, 10:41:31 PM »
Speaking of non-deus ex machina, can the phrase, "just believe in yourself" and its ilk be strucken from the literary existance.
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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #9 on: December 31, 2003, 10:56:55 PM »
In the name of all that christians spend time worrying about - Eagle prince, use paragraph spaces for crying out loud! English is not meant to look like a cinderblock dropped onto the page!
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Fellfrosch

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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #10 on: December 31, 2003, 11:17:35 PM »
Usage and grammar are for the weak.  :P
« Last Edit: December 31, 2003, 11:18:21 PM by Eagle_Prince »
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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #11 on: January 01, 2004, 12:51:06 AM »
I don't mind Deus Ex Machina, as long as its used well. As a Speculative Fiction fan, much of what I read is more about ideas than it is about plot. Deus Ex can be a handy device to keep the plot under control to allow the ideas to be put out in the open. That said, it isn't always justified. Take Lynch's Mulhollund Drive. Fantastic film, but when I figured out <SPOILER> it was all a fantasy/dream, I was disappointed, as it diminished the fabulous film into meaning nothing. </SPOLIER>

On the subject, did anyone else note the humour and wit in the way the video game "Deus Ex" uses "God from the Machine " literally,  while leabing the "machina" out of the title? More so the actual plot had no Deus ex Machina device? The way the player controls things, ina  cause and effect, emergent, and consistent world is rather interesting given the premise.
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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #12 on: January 01, 2004, 04:29:01 AM »
I agree that deus ex machina can be good in some cases, but usually it's not. In battles, however, I consider it cheating, probably due to my wargaming background: the helm's deep people had their army, the uruk-hai had their army, and then you have to play out the battle to see who can win with the resources at hand. Bringing in a third army is against the rules. :)
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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #13 on: January 01, 2004, 08:05:48 AM »
Ah, but they were playing a reinforcements scenario - the 3rd force was part of the helms deep force, who had to hold out for 4 turns until they arrived. :)
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Re: Deus Ex Machina
« Reply #14 on: January 01, 2004, 12:42:54 PM »
You do realize that the riders of Rohah are their army.
I am the Immortal One hidden from the dawn; I am the Emperor-King after day has gone.