Remember that old Tintin comic, “Prisoners of the Sun?” The little group of intrepid travelers is being held captive by those villainous Incas. A burning glass focusing the sun’s rays is about to light their pyre. They’re waiting to go up in flames. We’re 5 pages from the end.
Then Tintin speaks up. “Stay, Huascar!…The Sun God will not hear your prayers!”
“?” “?” say the thought balloons of the villainous natives.
Our hero then calls upon the sun to hide his face if the sacrifice is not his will. A little humorous aside ensues between Captain Haddock and Professor Calculus. Then–billions of blue blistering barnacles!–darkness falls. The Incas beg for mercy. Tintin “commands” the sun to come back, and in a couple of frames, there it is, up in the sky once more.
The secret lies in a little scrap of newspaper tidily placed several pages earlier, that just happens to show an upcoming eclipse. Tintin pores over it, figures it out, claims that the day is Capt. Haddock’s birthday and requests the execution be scheduled on that day. Cunningly he asks for it to happen in time to catch the crucial celestial event and for some reason their captors agree. This is probably related to the innate foolishness of the Incas. Strangely enough, the Incas seem not to know about eclipses, although surely they have seen them before.
Here’s an interesting post on the subject from Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog. Herge, it seems, regretted using the eclipse in this way. But he had good company. Mark Twain, and before him H. Rider Haggard had similarly capitalized on the stupidity of natives. Twain turned Rider Haggard’s colonial dichotomy on its head by locating the ignoramuses in England and letting Hank the visitor learn a thing or two. Others, including my childhood introduction to the eclipse gimmick, The Secret Mountain by Enid Blyton, are unabashed in their portrayal of ignorant savages.
It’s safe to say that pulling an eclipse out of your sleeve is unlikely to bail out a storyline that needs work. The sun (or moon) god will not hear your prayers.
Do historical events get the last laugh? There’s a Columbus story about an eclipse, in which the people he encountered are depicted as having been terrified by a predicted eclipse in just this way. That of course does not mean it’s going to work in fiction. And then too, we only have one version of the story.