The other day I was reading a discussion on writing between Brent Weeks and Brandon Sanderson
, two contemporary fantasy authors. There's a lot of interesting stuff in there, but this one bit by Brent Weeks really jumped out at me:
The Greeks of the fifth century BC believed in many gods, and they believed those gods intervened in real life (especially with the heroes who were so often the gods' own kids). The original plays happened during a religious festival. So part of the point of the drama (as my Classics prof explained it) was that humans make a huge mess—and need the gods to come straighten things out. Thus, the Athenians get rid of the endless cycle of personal retributive justice (you-killed-my-family-member-so-I-must-kill-you-so-your-family-must-kill-me) in the Oresteia only through Athena's intervention and establishment of the rule of law. (She sticks the Furies into the ground beneath Athens, if I remember correctly.) Intractable problem solved.
We don't believe in Athena (sorry, neo-pagans, but generally...), so reading that ending is interesting metaphorically and sociologically and historically. But it is much less interesting to us dramatically. And it doesn't fill us with religious awe. We're just not going to express a heartfelt, "Thank you Athena for sparing me!" (Stop me before I talk catharsis and Aristotle's Poetics here. No really, stop me!)
A deus ex machina written now runs into entirely different audience expectations. It just looks like the author cheating. "Hmm, the way I've set things up, the good guy will die, but I don't want that. So... magic sword!"
I think there are only a couple routes you could use if you really wanted to write a modern day deus ex machina that worked. First, you could set up a fantasy world in which the gods do regularly intervene and play favorites, and where mortals need them. It could be done well. However, at the end of that book, you're still not going to get religious awe from your audience. I think you can get everything else.
So I think the only way to have the full effect that Aeschylus got would be to write your epic fantasy specifically for a particular religious audience: set up your deus as a Hindu goddess for a Hindu audience and then have her act in ways consistent with what they believe is her character. Or a Christian God for a Christian audience, or what have you. I guess the limiter here would be that you'd have to choose a religion which believes in an intervenient God. Deists, you're hosed.
Is that success?
We have a strong rationalist thread in fantasy right now, a demand that the magic system be explained and consistent so that the author doesn't cheat at the end. If magic figures importantly to the plot, we want it stitched in there like a good mystery: all the hints were there for us to figure it out for ourselves, we just didn't put it together. There's an intellectual pleasure to it: Well played, Mr. Sanderson! Compare that to the magic of Tolkien's Gandalf. The guy is treated like he can pull mountains down on your head, but mostly he just uses the Magic Staff Flashlight. Come on, Tolkien, how about a chart of what the Rings of Power do? The people demand a graph!
Reading this, I wonder if the contemporary Western taste for well-foreshadowed plot twists, and distaste for deux ex machina, is actually an outworking of a shift in worldview from religious to rationalistic. If so, is it more Christian to write a story that doesn't
rely entirely on foreshadowing, hints, etc. to validate a plot twist? Basically, to write a story that doesn't appeal to a rationalist worldview to make the story work? Have we lost a capacity to appreciate God's power in stories because of a shift to a rationalistic worldview?
What do you think?
(For the record, I'm asking these questions to generate discussion, not because I necessarily agree with what I'm positing.)