The deus ex machina… An example from an Urdu dastaan

A deus ex machina (“god from the machine”) is a plot device whereby a previously intractable or seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with an often contrived introduction of a new character, ability, or object – mostly in in an extremely unlikely and, usually, anticlimactic way.

I’ll explain with an example. Imagine a group of scientists have just lost funding while on the verge of a breakthrough and a millionaire suddenly arrives, announces an interest in their work, and offers all the finances they need to successfully complete it.

If you think you can believe that one, then imagine a hero dangling off a cliff with a manically laughing villain stepping on his fingers, when a flying robot suddenly appears to save him.

The phrase “deus ex machina” (which is Latin… as can be expected) has come to English from Horace’s Ars Poetica, where he instructs poets that they must never resort to a god from the machine to solve their plots. He refers to the conventions of Greek tragedy, where a crane (mekhane…. now you understand where the word “mechanical” comes from?) was used to lower actors playing gods onto the stage.

The machine referred to in Horace’s phrase could be either the crane employed in the task, a calque from the Greek “god from the machine” (“ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός,” apò mēkhanḗs theós), or the riser that brought a god up from a trap door. Though this phrase is somewhat diluted in transliteration as earlier in history, the phrase “god from the machine” implies the old use of mechanical manipulation – with one’s hands, that is. Therefore, a more generally accurate way of translating it into English would be “god from our hands” or “god that we make”, which implies that the device of said god is entirely artificial or conceived by man.

It has since come to be used as a general term for any event in which a seemingly fatal plot twist is resolved by an event never foreshadowed or set up…. but we will keep to its original sense of literary works…..

At this point, I must admit the title for the post mentions this plot device’s presence in an Urdu dastaan, but be patient. I will come to it once I explain the device’s types and ramifications fully.

There are four primary forms a deus ex machina can take – (and I am indebted to this helpful website which told me about them..I used to think there was only one).

Total deus ex machina -This is a plot element that didn’t previously exist and has no logical explanation behind it. Let’s say the hero (poor guy) has been thrashed to an inch of his life and the villain has regained control of his gun. The hero then finds a magical remote control under a nearby couch that allows him to pause the scene, take the gun away, and shoot the villain….. quite plausible, isn’t it?

Illogical placement and timing deus ex machina – When something is established and explained in the work, but its use in that situation is jarring and impossible to believe. Building from the example above, let’s say that instead of a magical remote, the local police bursts in and shoots the villain. Maybe it was established earlier that the police protects the countryside, but for them to somehow come to know that there is a fight going on at at that specific place and to burst in just in time to save the day is a deus ex machina certainly. And knowing some police… but lets not get into all that……..

To be continued….. and yes the Urdu part will soon come. Soon. I will not need to invoke a deus ex machina myself.


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