The Unnatural History of Tolkien’s Orcs

By Tyel­las — Edi­to­rial ack­now­led­ge­ments to Aaye­sha, Nekron’s Love­song, and Sharka

An over­view of the Middle-Earth facts about the orcs envi­sio­ned by J.R.R. Tol­kien, from their quo­ti­dian side (what they eat, how they repro­duce) to more exis­ten­tial issues of orcs in the Middle-Earth cos­mo­logy.

There are elves, dwarves, trolls, dra­gons, princes and prin­cesses, wizards and, inevi­ta­bly, those most mali­gned of fic­tio­nal crea­tures, orcs, the des­pi­sed pro­le­ta­riat of conser­va­tive fan­tasy….”

The Socia­list Review 1

They Know What An Orc Is”

This essay exa­mines Tolkien’s orcs as Tol­kien would have them. Before this, it is impor­tant to dis­tin­guish bet­ween Tolkien’s orcs and their wider adap­ta­tion in fan­tasy wri­ting.

The fic­tion writ­ten by J.R.R. Tol­kien has had a huge influence on the genre of fan­tasy wri­ting. The cha­rac­ter arche­types and plot devices Tol­kien used in his main novel, The Lord of the Rings, have been adap­ted by dozens of other fan­ta­sists, in more or less crea­tive ways. Of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth concepts, the idea of orcs stands out as being fre­quently adap­ted with mini­mal change. 2 This has rea­ched the point where a fan­tasy critic, Terence Casey, has stated in advice to aspi­ring fan­tasy wri­ters :

Someone who’s fami­liar with fan­tasy isn’t gene­rally going to have a pro­blem with « orcs » being in a novel or game — they know what an orc is and are used to it. If you start making up your own mons­ters ins­tead of dra­wing from « gene­ric fan­tasy », howe­ver, the mere new­ness of them can make it harder for people to sus­pend their dis­be­lief.” 3

This sta­te­ment is stun­ning because Tol­kien, in the crea­tion of orcs, was very lite­rally making up his own mons­ters. Tol­kien also used the concepts of elves, hob­bits, dwarves, and medie­val-type king­doms in crea­ting his Middle-Earth. Howe­ver, all of those concepts, or their sym­bo­lic equi­va­lents, were stron­gly esta­bli­shed in Euro­pean myth and fan­tasy wri­ting before Tol­kien began his own works. There was no exact equi­va­lent to the orcs. 4 Euro­pean folk­lore has small crea­tures of evil – bogies, tom­myk­no­ckers, goblins – and fear­some mons­ters, from Gren­del as com­me­mo­ra­ted in Beo­wulf to the evil ele­men­tals of Celtic tra­di­tion. 5 But there was no faerie or super­na­tu­ral evil that was the paral­lel of human war­riors, which faced them as equals and was sent out to mow them down.

Tol­kien needed to create his par­ti­cu­lar mons­ters, and their new­ness had a pur­pose. Long-term Tol­kien scho­lar Tom Ship­pey has said of Tolkien’s orcs, There can be little doubt that orcs ente­red Middle-Earth ori­gi­nally just because the story needed a conti­nual supply of ene­mies over whom one need feel no com­punc­tion.” 6 Hence, for the pur­poses of his own nar­ra­tives, Tol­kien com­bi­ned items from then- obs­cure folk­lore with more modern concepts of vio­lence and evil to concoct orcs. Heroes were more heroic with orcs to slay ; with orcs at their bid­ding, higher-caste vil­lains were more fear­some. For these pur­poses, orcs were a suc­cess­ful nar­ra­tive device – and one not seen pre­viously in fan­tasy wri­ting.

Orcs were more than a good idea. There was autho­rial work requi­red to set the stage for this new crea­tion, espe­cially to do so in a way that helped the reader sup­port the concept. 7 Tol­kien did this so well that, in the pro­cess, he crea­ted a new arche­type that became popu­lar. It is dis­tur­bing to think that there was a gap in ima­gi­na­tion and myth for what the orcs represent, but their popu­la­rity shows that this has indeed been the case.

Orc Evolution in Middle-Earth

We all know what an orc is – but, just to be sure, what are orcs in Middle-Earth ? They are bipe­dal sapient beings that serve evil. Tol­kien noted in one of his let­ters 8 that he had adap­ted the word orc from the Old English word orc, which means demon,” using this term only because of its pho­ne­tic sui­ta­bi­lity.” In this same letter he notes that orcs owe a good deal to the goblin tra­di­tion, espe­cially as it appears in George Mac­Do­nald. 9

In fur­ther cor­res­pon­dence, Tol­kien notes how the goblin idea became blen­ded with a more modern concept ; that of the evil inherent in human beings. In cor­res­pon­dence in Tolkien’s publi­shed Let­ters, he com­pares evil or small-minded humans to orcs mul­tiple times, in let­ters 66, 71, and 78 – all in the context of mili­tary ser­vice. It is neatly phra­sed in letter 153, where Tol­kien says, as part of a longer point, Orcs – who are fun­da­men­tally a race of ratio­nal incar­nate” crea­tures, though hor­ri­bly cor­rup­ted, if no more so than many Men to be met today.”

Orc ori­gins in Middle-Earth cos­mo­logy are des­cri­bed in The Sil­ma­ril­lion. Mor­goth, a power­ful, self-ser­ving Vala (god-equi­va­lent) fallen into evil, cap­tu­red some Elves (Quendi) early in the exis­tence of their race.

Yet this is held true by the wise of Eressëa, that all those of the Quendi who came into the hands of Melkor [later Morgoth]…by slow arts of cruelty were cor­rup­ted and ensla­ved ; and thus did Melkor breed the race of the orcs, in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were after­wards the bit­te­rest foes.” 10

This idea is tidy and stron­gly appea­ling with its paral­lel of beau­ti­ful elves directly linked to ugly orcs. None­the­less, in his own varied wri­ting about orcs, Tol­kien vacilla­ted bet­ween this concept of orcs-from-elves and a rela­ted concept of orcs- from-men. 11 He even toyed with the idea that orcs were cun­ning ani­mals, lacking the spi­ri­tual ele­ment of sapient beings, or with the concept that orcs were Maiar (divine spi­rits) ser­ving Mor­goth who had been cor­rup­ted into orc-form. Both the orcs-from-men and orcs-as-beasts concepts seem to come from Tolkien’s per­so­nal reluc­tance to taint elves, his ideal” race. Howe­ver, he kept being drawn back to the idea of orcs-from-elves in mul­tiple drafts of his own orc essay, writ­ten through 1959 and 1960, and he ack­now­ledges that orcs-from-elves was the most wor­kable origin for the Middle-Earth time­line he desi­red. 12

Chris­to­pher Tol­kien, edi­ting The Sil­ma­ril­lion after J.R.R. Tolkien’s death, opted for the orcs-from-elves origin. Yet this is not the end of orcish over­lap with other races. In Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Tol­kien pre­sents us with orcs inter­bred with humans. It is never abso­lu­tely stated in LOTR that the Uruk-Hai, who can endure the sun better than regu­lar orcs, are partly human. This is power­fully sug­ges­ted in dia­logue given to the Ent Tree­beard.

It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Dark­ness that they cannot abide the Sun, but Saruman’s Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it. I wonder what he has done ? Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blen­ded the races of Orcs and Men ? That would be a black evil!” 13

And it is confir­med out­side the novel in a sepa­rate quote from Tolkien’s later wri­tings :

« Men could under the domi­na­tion of Mor­goth or his agents in a few gene­ra­tions be redu­ced almost to orc level and then they would or could be made to mate with orcs pro­du­cing new breeds more large and cun­ning. There is no doubt that long after­wards, in the third age, Saru­man redis­co­ve­red this or lear­ned of it in lore, and in his lust for mas­tery com­mit­ted this, his wicke­dest deed : the inter­bree­ding of men and orcs. » 14

The impor­tant idea is that Orcs are not an ori­gi­nal life form. Orcs are a pre­vious life form that was cor­rup­ted. Their will is inex­tri­ca­bly bound to that of Middle- Earth’s prime evil powers – first that of Melkor, later known as Mor­goth, then that of Sauron. 15

Life As An Orc

Though Tol­kien did not care to let his ima­gi­na­tion linger among the Orcs, he did note the basic facts of life” about them to make them a solid, belie­vable part of Middle-Earth. Tol­kien pro­vides the reader with this infor­ma­tion through the point of view of his most sym­pa­the­tic pro­ta­go­nists ; elvish his­to­rians, and hob­bits.

The lack of orc lan­guage is one proof that Tol­kien, who expan­ded the details of Middle-Earth to sup­port his hobby of crea­ting lan­guages, was not ima­gi­na­ti­vely enga­ged with them. It is said that they had no lan­guage of their own, but took what they could of other tongues and per­ver­ted it to their own liking, yet they made only brutal jar­gons, scar­cely suf­fi­cient even for their own needs, unless it were for curses and abuse…” 16 As a result, the Orcs used the common Wes­tron lan­guage of Middle-Earth for inter-tribe com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and there is a dis­tinc­tive orcish voice in their dia­logue. Sauron crea­ted the Black Speech to be the lan­guage of all his ser­vants 17 as a sort of Espe­ranto of evil, and, like Espe­ranto, it never achie­ved its goal. Some words of it were used by orcs, incon­sis­tently, espe­cially among the orcs of Mordor. Having noted the basic concept of the Black Speech, Tol­kien crea­ted only mini­mal notes about its voca­bu­lary. 18

Orcs were far from invul­ne­rable ; they were sub­ject to disease, they could die, they were not immor­tal, and they needed food and drink, and rest.” [^19] Orcish food, though unap­pe­ti­zing as a rule, can be eaten by other people – a star­ving hero, Tuor, hun­gers when he sees orcs roas­ting meat (“even the meat of orcs would be a prize”). 19 In the hands of the Uruk-Hai, Merry and Pippin are fed orcish bread. 20 Later orcs who take Frodo cap­tive both raid Frodo’s food supply and feed him, though they spe­ci­fi­cally dis­dain the elvish way­bread, lembas. 21 Orcs also eat horses, ponies and don­keys, 22 and, most famously, man-flesh. 23 Pippin refuses to eat a piece of dried meat an orc gives him, the meat of he knew not what crea­ture.” Sur­pri­sin­gly, there are no canon refe­rences to orcs eating other orcs, though pre­su­ma­bly the food chain in Moria had to go around some­how. Orcs were afraid that Elves would torment and eat their orcish cap­tives, though Elves did not engage in either acti­vity. 24

In the books, orcs repro­duce as humans, hob­bits, dwarves and elves do ; through sex lea­ding to pre­gnancy and child­bea­ring. Tol­kien des­cribes this dis­creetly as embo­died pro­crea­tion” and refers repea­tedly to orcs being bred’. 25 They are even refer­red to as bree­ding qui­ckly” and mul­ti­plied like flies,” terms that evoke ani­mals. 26 As noted pre­viously, orcs can and did inter­breed with mortal humans. Des­pite these constant refe­rences to orc bree­ding, Tol­kien never pre­sents us with an orc cha­rac­ter iden­ti­fied as female.

Tol­kien is silent about a ques­tion some rea­ders have : do orcs rape ? This seems com­ple­tely typi­cal of orcish evil, of which Tol­kien says, They were indeed so cor­rup­ted that they were piti­less, and there was no cruelty or wicked­ness that they would not commit…they took plea­sure in their deeds. They were capable of acting on their own, doing evil deeds unbid­den for their own sport.” 27 But Tol­kien never directly assi­gns this par­ti­cu­lar vio­lence to them. The ter­rible ques­tion of orcs inter­bree­ding with Elves seems cir­cum­ven­ted by Tolkien’s sta­te­ment that Elves die when raped, 28 and by Tol­kien being too tas­te­ful to pos­tu­late a situa­tion where an Elf volun­ta­rily has sex with an orc. This may be an aspect of why the crea­tion of orcs was Morgoth’s grea­test evil.” 29 There is also a sinis­ter under­tone to orcs taking elf-women cap­tive 30 and the orcs’ cap­ture and torment of the elf-lady Cele­brían. 31 And Saruman’s bree­ding pro­gram bet­ween mor­tals and orcs had to begin somew­here.

Tol­kien says nothing about orcish child­hood or upbrin­ging. Tol­kien likes chil­dren, as noted in his quotes about hobbit chil­dren and elf chil­dren. 32 This may be the reason for his silence about the pro­bable misery of orcish child­hood.

Both LOTR and The Sil­ma­ril­lion lack des­crip­tions of orcish appea­rance – Tol­kien pro­vides more des­crip­tion in LOTR of how orcs smell than of how orcs look. In Return of the King (ROTK), there is one stri­king scene with two orcs of dif­ferent size, a small tra­cking orc with black skin and a snuf­fling nose wor­king along­side a large war­rior orc. 33 Tol­kien did pro­vide a des­crip­tion of how he pic­tu­red orcs.

Iro­ni­cally, he wrote this in a letter cri­ti­ci­sing a pro­po­sed movie treat­ment of his works :

The Orcs are defi­ni­tely stated to be cor­rup­tions of the human’ form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skin­ned, with wide mouths and slant eyes ; in fact, degra­ded and repul­sive ver­sions of the (to Euro­peans) least lovely Mongol types.” 34

The out-of-date racial ste­reo­ty­ping in this sta­te­ment is regret­table. In Tolkien’s more focu­sed orc/​human com­pa­ri­sons in cor­res­pon­dence, Tol­kien com­pares Axis mem­bers in WWII and even evil English­men 35 to Orcs. In the recent LOTR films, the spe­cial effects inter­pre­ta­tions of the orcs are more racially neu­tral than Tolkien’s des­crip­tion, using a palette of grey, pat­ched, or der­ma­to­lo­gi­cally ble­mi­shed skin.

Apart from pillage and plun­der, orcs had a crea­tive streak ; a slimy, poi­so­nous crea­tive streak. A pas­sage in The Hobbit des­cribes the nature of orcish crea­ti­vity : They make no beau­ti­ful things, but they make many clever ones…Hammers, axes, swords, dag­gers, pickaxes, tongs, and other ins­tru­ments of tor­ture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design.” 36

Orcish plea­sures are few, apart from the amu­se­ment they derive from cruelty. In a pos­sible hol­do­ver from their elvish ori­gins, they do chant and sing. 37

Amongst them­selves, orcs are capable of rough friend­ships and clan alliances, though these fra­gile and likely to fall apart if they get angry enough. This is illus­tra­ted with Ugluk in The Two Towers, an Uruk-Hai who returns to a band he has quar­rel­led with for the sake of some good fel­lows”, and with two orcs, Sha­grat and Gorbag, plot­ting to leave Mordor some day with a few trusty lads”. Orcs hate Elves with a pas­sion. They have a spe­cial term of contempt and fear for Nume­no­réan mor­tals, tark.” Orcs do have some allies. They were known to make alliances with other mortal Men, nota­bly Eas­ter­lings. 38 Ano­ther pos­sible hol­do­ver from Elves, who com­mu­ni­cate with good beasts” is the orcs’ occa­sio­nal alliance with non-good beasts, namely wolves, 39 and with the wolf-like wargs. 40

The Evil That Orcs Do

Because Tol­kien never gives us the nar­ra­tive pers­pec­tive of orcs, we expe­rience orcs in Middle-Earth through their deeds as seen by others. The Orcs are never pre­sen­ted as sym­pa­the­tic, or kind, or wishing to be free from evil (though they do wish to be free from their mas­ters). An orc’s appea­rance is a cause for fear and an imme­diate pre­cur­sor of vio­lence. At times, an evil orcish deed serves a good pur­pose – at seve­ral points in the LOTR story, orcs figh­ting amongst them­selves pro­vide the hobbit cha­rac­ters with chances for defiance or escape – but no orc is ever deli­be­ra­tely help­ful. In ins­tances where orcs restrain them­selves from tor­men­ting cap­tives, they are noted as doing so under com­mand, in fear of a grea­ter evil than them­selves.

The nature of orcish evil changes to suit the story that Tol­kien is tel­ling. Orcs fea­ture in each of Tolkien’s three novels : The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and The Sil­ma­ril­lion. The Hobbit is a children’s story set in Middle-Earth. In The Hobbit, these orcs are, in both qua­lity and lite­ral refe­rence, inter­chan­geable with goblins” in folk­lore and Vic­to­rian fairy-tel­ling. The stri­king des­crip­tion of orcs’ crea­ti­vity that Tol­kien includes here has dis­tinct faerie-tra­di­tion over­tones. The slightly dimi­nu­tive pre­sen­ta­tion of orcs as goblins” places them on a par with the book’s pro­ta­go­nist, the hobbit Bilbo Bag­gins. It is implied in later, rela­ted wri­tings that if ano­ther cha­rac­ter, Gan­dalf or Thorin, had nar­ra­ted the orc encoun­ters, they would have a dif­ferent tone. 41(#_book­mark38)

The most remar­kable orc inci­dent in The Hobbit is Gandalf’s attempt to parley with the orcs when the tra­vel­ling party of dwarves and hobbit are cap­tu­red. This is the only ins­tance in Tolkien’s works where a good” cha­rac­ter tries to reason with orcs, as if they were the peers of other races in Middle-Earth. This is in line with Gandalf’s cha­rac­te­ri­za­tion as an avatar of good, sent to ins­pire the best part of Middle-Earth’s inha­bi­tants. The orcs’ king, the Great Goblin, does not rise to the occa­sion, and a fight imme­dia­tely ensues.

The Lord of the Rings, with its cha­rac­ters embar­king on a quest against evil, is the most tra­di­tio­nal novel-type nar­ra­tive of Tolkien’s major wri­tings. Here all the races shown in The Hobbit are pre­sen­ted from an adult pers­pec­tive. Orcs have shed their goblin asso­cia­tions, though, as in The Hobbit, the pro­ta­go­nists first encoun­ter the orcs deep under­ground. The orc cha­rac­ters who appear later in the nar­ra­tive are crude, random, and fear­some – and dis­tinctly mili­tary, with a modern edge. For the orc sol­diers have num­bers assi­gned to them. 42 This is not the only curiously modern touch about them ; the orcs speak in sharp, vulgar, abbre­via­ted dia­logue, dis­tinctly dif­ferent from the ele­gant medie­val tones assi­gned to many other cha­rac­ters. Only the hobbit cha­rac­ters have a simi­larly modern ring to their dia­logue.

A side note about orcs in LOTR is their appea­rance in the Tale of Years appen­dix to the novel. This appen­dix pre­sents Tolkien’s backs­tory idea that, orcish acti­vity has built up over time and affec­ted many of the pro­ta­go­nists directly, nota­bly Arwen and Ara­gorn. With the dry­ness of a his­to­rian, the Tale of Years notes the war of the Dwarves and Orcs (fur­ther Appen­dix notes make this more vivid and grisly) and an orc attack on the Shire, Tolkien’s idyl­lic hobbit land. In addi­tion to this and attacks upon Gondor and Rohan, the orcs at one point cap­tu­red, poi­so­ned and tor­men­ted Arwen’s mother, Cele­brían. Cele­brían is rescued, but cannot be healed, and she departs for the Undying Lands. This sets up a future tra­gedy that almost seems des­ti­ned. Celebrían’s sons vow ven­geance and take to hun­ting orcs, at times in the com­pany of Aragorn’s ances­tors. On one such hunt, orcs kill Aragorn’s father. Thus, dwarves, mortal men, elves, and even hob­bits have suf­fe­red at the hands of orcs, and stood to suffer more if evil had trium­phed.

The Sil­ma­ril­lion is a cos­mo­logy and epic his­tory of Middle-Earth in its eras before The Lord of the Rings takes place. We rarely receive inti­mate details about cha­rac­ters in this book, and, in kee­ping with this, orcs are pre­sen­ted as face­less hordes of evil. Their crea­tion is revie­wed, as noted pre­viously. When elves first encoun­ter orcs, the elves note them as fol­lows : Among them were Orcs, who after­wards wrought ruin in Bele­riand ; but they were yet few and wary…Whence they came, or what they were, the elves knew not, but thin­king them per­haps to be Avari [a type of elf] who had become evil and savage in the wild ; in which they gues­sed all too near, it is said.” 43

After the orcs’ timid debut, they par­ti­ci­pate in a series of bat­tles, with their suc­cess 44 linked to the for­tunes of their mas­ters. When their mas­ters fall, they scat­ter and dwindle, but, like evil itself, a few of them always endure to be sum­mo­ned again. But ove­rall, the Sil­ma­ril­lion orcs present a very imper­so­nal evil. Only twice is there a men­tion of a spe­ci­fic cruel act. 45 No orc in The Sil­ma­ril­lion – nor in its source notes, chro­ni­cled in the His­tory of Middle-Earth series – merits a name.

The His­tory of Middle-Earth series are fif­teen volumes of Tolkien’s notes and backs­tory that have been publi­shed. Upon revie­wing these books, it is remar­kable how little Tolkien’s other wri­tings concern the orcs that he crea­ted. The main wri­tings are the essays on orcs publi­shed in Morgoth’s Ring, which encom­pass about ten pages, total. In these essays concer­ning orcs, Tolkien’s preoc­cu­pa­tion is how the great evil forces of Middle-Earth use orcs and the spi­ri­tual signi­fi­cance of orcs.

What Orcs Mean in Middle-Earth

Orcs have seve­ral layers of signi­fi­cance beyond that of battle-fodder for elvish swords. As noted, orcs’ role in Tolkien’s nar­ra­tives is simple. It is their place in Middle-Earth cos­mo­logy that makes them com­plex, entan­gled in issues of the nature of evil, free will, and redemp­tion.

Because Orcs, in Tolkien’s cos­mo­logy, are not meant to exist, they would seem to represent the unsee­lie, uncanny, and wrong – the clas­si­cal Other. 46 The idea of the Other gains power from its reflec­tion in the self, and what is reflec­ted in the orcs is the pos­si­bi­lity for banal evil in all peoples, very spe­ci­fi­cally humans.

Ins­tead, Orcs are evil made mani­fest, and a very spe­ci­fic evil at that, the will of their mas­ters. Tol­kien gives us an event in Return of the King that makes this clear. After wit­nes­sing *a* one orc killing ano­ther, an act that keeps Sam and Frodo from being dis­co­ve­red, Frodo notes, That is the spirit of Mordor, Sam ; and it has spread to every corner of it. Orcs have always beha­ved like that, or so all tales say, when they are on their own.” 47 Frodo goes on to add, But you can’t get much hope out of it,” and indeed, whe­ne­ver an orc appears, it is a reason to fear, even to des­pair.

The evil of orcs is not the evil of the drowsy undead. There is a ter­rible vita­lity to them, shown in their fero­city, rea­di­ness to fight and breed, and their impul­sive, id- level emo­tions. Orcs are alive but fallen ; the living, brea­thing mark of evil’s invest­ment in the world of Middle-Earth, a phe­no­me­non Tol­kien sum­ma­rizes as Arda marred.” 48

Orcish Conclusions

If orcs are Arda Marred, can orcs be redee­med ? Maybe. Tol­kien is reluc­tant to rule this out, though, as with other cos­mo­lo­gi­cal points in his notes, he explores seve­ral inter­pre­ta­tions. In one of the Orcs” texts of Morgoth’s Ring he says that orcs might have become irre­dee­mable (at last by Elves and Men), but that they remai­ned within the Law.” As part of this, if an Orc had ever asked for mercy, good people were obli­ged to grant that mercy, even at a cost”. Orcish repen­tance and redemp­tion, howe­ver impro­bable, was sup­po­sed to be given a chance.

Signi­fi­cantly, orcs are not present in an inter­pre­ta­tion of Arda rene­wed and healed ; it seems that, as a spec­ta­cu­lar aber­ra­tion and mockery, they should not exist at all. A com­ment in Letter 153 proves other­wise, and, while not pre­sen­ting a solu­tion, sums up the cos­mo­lo­gi­cal conun­drum of orcs :

They would be Morgoth’s grea­test Sins, abuses of his highest pri­vi­lege, and would be crea­tures begot­ten of Sin, and natu­rally bad. (I nearly wrote irre­dee­ma­bly bad’; but that would be going too far. Because by accep­ting or tole­ra­ting their making – neces­sary to their actual exis­tence – even Orcs would become part of the world, which is God’s and ulti­ma­tely good).”

Tol­kien is aware that in his cos­mo­logy Mor­goth did not create the Orcs, but cor­rup­ted them, and his com­ment on this is That God would tole­rate’ that, seems no worse theo­logy than the tole­ra­tion of the cal­cu­la­ted dehu­ma­ni­sing of Men by tyrants that goes on today.” 49 This also echoes the sad theme that, of all the beings high and low of Middle-Earth, it is the orcs who he sees as having most endu­ring effect on huma­nity.

Tol­kien even seems to have been aware of the dark appeal orcs would have to some rea­ders, and to have explo­red it, in obser­va­tions about rebel­lious­ness lea­ding to evil, in an unfi­ni­shed sequel to LOTR. This sequel, The New Shadow, exists as about ten pages of manus­cript (publi­shed in Peoples of Middle-Earth). It is the begin­ning frag­ment of a story set in Gondor about 100 years after the begin­ning of the Fourth Age. A notable plot point in it is “’orc-cults’ among ado­les­cents.’ 50 In this future Gondor, once orcs have vani­shed enough to be a piece of folk­lore or a by-word, there comes to be a rebel­lious appeal to their acts of empty, was­te­ful evil, and some defiant young­sters take up playing at doing orc-work.” This is a shadow of a wider evil plot, and a sign of rene­wed poten­tial for cor­rup­tion amongst mor­tals.

Rea­ders will never know the full details of what this orc-work fore­sha­do­wed. Tol­kien attemp­ted to work on the story seve­ral times, up to fif­teen months before his death. 51 Howe­ver, he did not finish the story, saying that its concept proved both sinis­ter and depressing….not worth doing.” 52

Tol­kien, in the end, decli­ned to apply more crea­ti­vity to his orcs than neces­sary to make them pro­bable within Middle-Earth. In his wri­tings, they have nothing of value to call their own, are trea­ted as cannon fodder, and their elu­sive redemp­tion is never shown. It is a tes­ta­ment to Tolkien’s crea­ti­vity that even his minions of evil, his grown-up goblins that click in our modern minds as fierce arche­types, are intri­guing and ins­pire curio­sity. This brings us to the obser­va­tion that began this essay : that modern fan­ta­sists have embra­ced Tolkien’s arche­type of the orc, expan­ding on its foun­da­tions. Some fan­ta­sists fol­lo­wing Tol­kien present orcs as even more hollow minions of evil, either in Tol­kie­nesque imi­ta­tion or in parody. Others take a sym­pa­the­tic view of the orcs, pre­sen­ting them as ugly duck­lings, Eve­ry­men arche­types, or ava­tars of power­ful mas­cu­li­nity 53. It seems that the orcs will be redee­med, after all, in our ima­gi­na­tions.

Appendix : Other Orcs in Modern Fantasy

To sup­port my asser­tion that the idea of orcs has made a large impres­sion on the genre of fan­tasy wri­ting, I have col­lec­ted this list of repre­sen­ta­tive role- playing games and novels that use Orcs or orc-paral­lels.

Orcs In Role-Playing Games

Orcs have become such a part of role-playing games that a large stra­tegy game” conven­tion in Cali­for­nia is named OrcCon.”

The Dun­geons & Dra­gons role-playing game system publi­shed by Wizards of the Coast, a famous Tol­kien deri­va­tive, uses orcs and half-orcs. A fine example of this is the D&D module” book Fury in the Was­te­land : The Orcs of Ter­rene, which delves into orc culture like no other book has before. Topics such as life cycle, habi­tat, recrea­tion, diet, clo­thing, medi­cine and heal­th­care, race rela­tions, trade, and lan­guage are all cove­red.”

Saber­tooth Games’ WarCry – Ano­ther game publi­sher invites the power-hungry to Control the hordes of dark­ness (Chaos, Dark Elves, ands Orcs and Goblins) or the Grand Alliance (Empire, High Elves, and Dwarfs) in mas­sive bat­tles that will decide the fate of king­doms!”

Ever­Quest – Noted in Forbes maga­zine in 2001 http://​www​.forbes​.com/​b​e​s​t​/​2​0​0​1​/​0​6​2​5​/​w​e​b​e​x​t​r​a​.html as a social phe­no­me­non among online gaming, orcs are part of the game. Inter­es­tin­gly, while orcs are non-player cha­rac­ter” ene­mies or allies, players with dark urges cannot choose to be an orc as a cha­rac­ter, but are fobbed off with trolls, ogres, evil rep­ti­lian bipeds, and dark elves.

Orcs By Any Other Name

The minions of evil in these series are dis­tinctly simi­lar to orcs.

Eragon series by Chris­to­pher Pao­lini, (2003, Knopf) – Has orc-paral­lel cha­rac­ters Urgalls.

Shan­nara series by Terry Brooks (19 books from 1977 to present, Bal­lan­tine Books) – Has orc-paral­lel cha­rac­ters Gnomes.

The Fion­var Tapes­try series by Guy Gavriel Kay (three books, publi­shed in 1984, 1985, 1986, Roc) – Has orc-paral­lel cha­rac­ters Svart Alfar and Urgaches. This series – Arthu­rian in intent, inter­pre­ted by some as Tol­kie­nesque — was Kay’s first novels, publi­shed ten years after Kay had assis­ted Chris­to­pher Tol­kien in edi­ting The Sil­ma­ril­lion.”

Orcs Called Orcs” in Non-Tolkien Writing

Unlike the authors who use orc-paral­lels, these authors call an orc an orc, often to high­light the contrast or note the satire bet­ween their work and Tolkien’s.

Abacar the Wizard : Book One : A Tale of Magic, War, Elves, Goblins, Orcs, Mons­ters, Fan­tasy, and Adven­ture by Timo­thy Eren­ber­ger (Writer’s Club Press, 2001) – In the title alone, orcs are dis­tin­gui­shed from both goblins and mons­ters as a dis­tinct cate­gory.

Grunts ! by Mary Gentle (Bantam Press, 1992) – Sati­ri­cally aware of its deri­va­tion from Tol­kien, in this novel, orcs (sym­pa­the­tic pro­ta­go­nists) are hired to pro­tect hal­fling thieves who go to steal trea­sure from a dragon. Some of this trea­sure includes wea­pons from the U.S. Marine Corps.

ORCS : First Blood by Stan Nicholls (multi-book series, Gol­lancz, 1997- 1999) – Here the orcs are depic­ted as, though ugly and stupid, none­the­less heroic/​sympathetic pro­ta­go­nists.

Red Orc’s Rage by Philip Jose Farmer (Tor Books, 1991) – Tech­ni­cally this belongs in the Orcs By Any Other Name” sec­tion for its use of orc-paral­lel gworls. Howe­ver, this unu­sual book was writ­ten for use in a type of psy­cho­the­rapy, Tier­sian the­rapy, based on rea­ding evo­ca­tive fic­tion. It fea­tures a trou­bled cha­rac­ter being invi­ted, as part of Tier­sian the­rapy, to pro­ject his per­so­na­lity onto any type of person he likes in a spe­ci­fic fan­tasy world – and he chooses Red Orc, the most pro­minent vil­lain in the fan­tasy world. Part of a longer science fic­tion series with this the­ra­peu­tic goal, this book is noted for being recur­sive, self-refe­ren­tial, and all-around odd. Read an article about Tier­sian the­rapy, with more men­tion of the spe­ci­fic book, here http://​www​.psy​chia​tric​times​.com/​p​0​1​0​7​5​6​.html

The Orc’s Trea­sure by Kevin Ander­son, (I Books, 2004) Orc pro­ta­go­nist as anti­hero : Gree is a wor­ka­day Orc without many aspi­ra­tions, as greedy and as nasty as they come.”

The Orc Wars : The Yngling Saga, Books I & II by John Dalmas, (Baen Books, 1992) A blend of fan­tasy and science fic­tion with orcs (as minions of an evil tele­path) and neo-Vikings in a post-apo­ca­lyp­tic Europe.

The Thou­sand Orcs by R.A. Sal­va­tore (Wizards of the Coast, 2003). A novel in a fan­tasy world that is an off­shoot of the Dun­geons & Dra­gons role-playing game system. The synop­sis speaks for itself : The band returns from Ice­wind Dale in the com­pany of the dwarves of Mithral Hall, who are escor­ting King Brue­nor back to reluc­tantly assume his throne.
…Embol­de­ned by a dark alliance with the deadly frost giants, an orcish horde is mas­sing quietly, wai­ting with uncha­rac­te­ris­tic patience to move against dwarves, elves, and humans alike.”
None­the­less, this par­ti­cu­lar novel was fea­tu­red on the New York Times best­sel­ler list – not a first for this author in this series. 

Thraxas by Martin Scott (Baen Books, 2000) Winner of the World Fan­tasy Award in 2000. Yet ano­ther sati­ric use of orcs : Thraxas is a down-on-his-luck detec­tive, a fan­tasy world Sam Spade, living in a magi­cal world which is refre­shin­gly cli­chéd in its trap­pings… a world popu­la­ted by conflic­ting king­doms of humans, elves and orcs.” 

  1. http://​www​.socia​lis​tre​view​.org​.uk/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​.​p​h​p​?​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​n​u​m​b​e​r​=7990 

  2. See the Appen­dix, a list of other authors’ inter­pre­ta­tions of orcs and role-playing games that incor­po­rate orcs. 

  3. http://​www​.skotos​.net/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​s​/​B​S​T​G​_​4​0​.​shtml 

  4. Rose, Carol ; Spi­rits, Fai­ries, Gnomes and Goblins : An Ency­clo­pe­dia of the Little People. 1996, ABC-Clio, Santa Bar­bara, Cali­for­nia. Conve­niently this book divides the myriad crea­tures of folk­lore from around the world into cate­go­ries. Nega­tive crea­tures are inclu­ded in the cate­go­ries of Demons (Male­volent), Devils, Spi­rits Asso­cia­ted with Ani­mals, Spi­rits Asso­cia­ted with Disease, Spi­rits Asso­cia­ted with Forests and other places. This break­down helps to show that most goblins” are per­so­ni­fi­ca­tions of nega­tive natu­ral forces or dan­ge­rous places. Orcs differ from this in that they are pre­sen­ted as paral­lels and peers to other races in Middle-Earth. One could look an orc in the eye ; they were no fairy-story but a ter­rible fact. Nor do orcs represent any­thing but the will and envy of evil. 

  5. Briggs, Katha­rine ; An Ency­clo­pe­dia of Fai­ries : Hob­go­blins, Brow­nies, Bogies, and Other Spi­ri­tual Crea­tures, 1976, Pan­theon Books, New York. 

  6. Ship­pey, Tom, The Road to Middle-Earth, Har­per­Col­lins, 1992. 

  7. Zipes, Jack, The Oxford Com­pa­nion to Fairy Tales, 2000, Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, New York. This is not in refe­rence to orcs spe­ci­fi­cally but in refe­rence to the fact that Tolkien’s concept of fan­tasy literature…is based on the sus­pen­sion of disbelief…that is, unlike fairy tales, we as rea­ders appre­hend fan­tasy within its own pre­mises as true.’ For Tol­kien, genuine and skil­ful fan­tasy creates Secon­dary Belief (unlike the Pri­mary Belief of myth or reli­gion), put­ting the reader in a tem­po­rary state of enchant­ment.” Thus, Tol­kien expen­ded a lot of autho­rial energy in esta­bli­shing the prac­ti­cal side of Middle- Earth. 

  8. Car­pen­ter, Hum­phrey. The Let­ters of J.R.R. Tol­kien. Hough­ton Mif­flin Co., 1995. Letter 144. 

  9. George Mac­Do­nald was a Vic­to­rian intel­lec­tual who, as part of his contri­bu­tion to the Arts and Crafts area of Vic­to­rian culture, wrote seve­ral fan­tasy sto­ries for chil­dren. His most exten­sive use of goblins is in a piece called The Prin­cess and the Goblin, in which goblins are des­cri­bed as having once been like ordi­nary humans, but been chan­ged and cor­rup­ted when they live under­ground to avoid their obli­ga­tions. Modern orc fans who read this story will find it incre­di­bly sugary. 

  10. Tol­kien, J.R.R., The Sil­ma­ril­lion, edited by Chris­to­pher Tol­kien, Bal­lan­tine Books, 1977.Chapter Of the Elves. 

  11. Morgoth’s Ring : The Later Sil­ma­ril­lion Part One, Volume 10 of The His­tory of Middle Earth (MR), J.R.R. Tol­kien, edited by Chris­to­pher Tol­kien. Hough­ton Mif­flin Co, 1993. Source for the two Orcs essays and Myths Trans­for­med

  12. Ibid. 

  13. The Two Towers (TTT), J.R.R. Tol­kien, Bal­lan­tine Books, 1955. Chap­ter Tree­beard

  14. Orcs, MR 

  15. Myths Trans­for­med, MR 

  16. The Return of the King (ROTK), J.R.R. Tol­kien, Bal­lan­tine Books, 1955. Appen­dix F. 

  17. Ibid. 

  18. Allan, Jim (ed.) An Intro­duc­tion To Elvish (And to Other Tongues and Proper Names and Wri­ting Sys­tems of the Third Age of Middle Earth As Set Forth in the Publi­shed Wri­tings of Pro­fes­sor John Ronald Ruel Tol­kien), 1978, Bran’s Head Books, Bath, UK. xix Orcs, MR 

  19. Unfi­ni­shed Tales of Numé­nor and Middle-Earth (UF), J.R.R. Tol­kien, edited by Chris­to­pher Tol­kien. Hough­ton Mif­flin Co, 1980. Chap­ter Of Tuor and his Coming To Gon­do­lin

  20. The Uruk-Hai, TTT 

  21. The Tower of Cirith Ungol, ROTK 

  22. Tol­kien, J.R.R., The Hobbit, Bal­lan­tine, 1947. 

  23. The Uruk-Hai, TTT 

  24. For one thing Mor­goth had achie­ved was to convince the Orcs beyond refu­ta­tion that the Elves were cruel­ler than them­selves, taking cap­tives only for amu­se­ment’ or to eat them (as the Orcs would do at need.)” Foot­note to Orcs, MR. 

  25. Orcs, MR 

  26. Alkal­la­beth, Silm 

  27. Orcs, MR 

  28. Laws and Cus­toms…, MR 

  29. Of the Elves, Silm 

  30. Of Turin Turam­bar, Silm 

  31. Tale of Years, LOTR 

  32. Tol­kien quotes re : chil­dren in Middle-Earth : Letter 144 -“Hobbit chil­dren were delight­ful…” LACE in Morgoth’s Ring re : elf chil­dren — as if they were the chil­dren of some fair and untrou­bled Men” 

  33. The Land of Shadow, ROT

  34. Letter 210 

  35. Letter 78 

  36. Over Hill and Under Hill, The Hobbit 

  37. ibid 

  38. Tale of Years, ROTK 

  39. Shelob’s Lair, TTT

  40. Out of the Frying Pan, Into The Fire, The Hobbit 

  41. The Quest of Erebor, UT 

  42. The Land of Shadow, ROTK 

  43. Of the Sindar, Silm 

  44. After seve­ral ini­tial defeats, Mor­goth chan­ged how orcs are used in his battle stra­tegy, for Mor­goth per­cei­ved now that the Orcs unai­ded were no match for the Noldor.” In later bat­tles, he used Orcs in a very spe­ci­fic fashion, first seen at the great battle of the Dagor Bra­gol­lach. Here, he sent the Orcs out first in mul­ti­tudes such as the Noldor had never seen nor ima­gi­ned.” This is suc­cess­ful – to a cer­tain point ; the Orcs are still afraid of spe­ci­fic elf-lords, and cer­tain stron­gholds do not fall as a result. At a later battle, the Nir­naeth Aenor­diad, Mor­goth took this orcish weak­ness into account. He repea­ted the pre­vious stra­tegy of large quan­ti­ties of Orcs until The Orcs wave­red, and their ons­laught was stayed, and already some were tur­ning to flight.” Then, Mor­goth unleashes his more power­ful crea­tures of evil into the battle. Signi­fi­cantly, at Gon­do­lin, even a band of Orcs left in the area near Gon­do­lin to try and des­troy any who escape is backed up with a Balrog. As a side note, the words Orc” and Orcs” are always capi­ta­li­zed in The Sil­ma­ril­lion text, but not in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings

  45. One is when the orcs pin an elf-lady, Fin­dui­las, to a tree with a spear to kill her. (Of Turin Turam­bar, Silm.) The other is of the Orcs’ attack and pur­suit, by scent and slot,” of Isil­dur in the Second Age. (Silm

  46. Tol­kien scho­lar Ainur Elmgren’s essay, The Image of the Enemy : An issue of Race and Class in the works of J.R.R. Tol­kien” pro­vides a sophis­ti­ca­ted ana­ly­sis of the topic of orcs as Other. http://​www​.ainu​rin​.net/​i​m​a​g​e​_​o​f​_​e​n​e​m​y​_​i​n​t​r​o.htm 

  47. The Land of Shadow, ROTK 

  48. Myths Trans­for­med, MR 

  49. Letter 154. 

  50. Letter 338. 

  51. The Peoples of Middle-Earth, Volume 12 of The His­tory of Middle Earth, J.R.R. Tol­kien, edited by Chris­to­pher Tol­kien. Hough­ton Mif­flin Co, 1996. 

  52. Letter 256. 

  53. Remar­ka­bly, all these alter­na­tive roles for orcs in modern fan­tasy (ugly duck­ling, Eve­ry­man figure, or hyper­ma­su­cline power) hear­ken back to impor­tant roles for pro­ta­go­nists and powers in Euro­pean fairy-tales. The youn­gest son or ques­ting prince has become an orc ! Refe­rences throu­ghout Zipes. 


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