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Orcs, Goblins and Uruk-hai – Oh My!

COVID has kept me indoors now for my second weekend, so I’ve continued to go through The History of Middle-earth books I got last year to see what other interesting information I can find on Tolkien’s creation. Being far from an expert on Tolkien and his work, I am attempting to better educate myself on the mind behind this fantastic world that has helped inspire so many in the past decades since its publication.

Before I really get into things, I’d like to address this odd notion that Orcs are somehow proof that Tolkien was a racist based on his following description of them:

…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.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Of course this sentence can be construed as being racist, but I think it far too simple a way to read it. I do not think that he was a racist, nor do I adhere for one second to the idea that Tolkien based Orcs off of Asians or Africans in some derogatory or racist way.

Image from The Sunday Times.

It just so happens that a week or so after I started writing this post, IGN released their exclusive shots of the Orcs from Amazon’s The Rings of Power, giving us the first glimpse of their versions of Orcs in the Second Age of Middle-earth. I have been underwhelmed by what has been announced so far, despite my genuine attempts at being positive of what is to come, and finally something has been released that made me sit up and take notice. At the time of writing this, I am genuinely impressed with what they have made but unfortunately it doesn’t necessarily allay my concerns for the show. Although they certainly look good, who knows what Amazon’s plan is with them?

Before this announcement, randomly leafing through the tenth book in the series, Morgoth’s Ring, I came across a chapter titled ‘Myths Transformed’. I’ve recently been getting into the study of myths and legends in my spare time, so it instantly jumped out at me as a definite interesting read. It started off with some very interesting information on Morgoth with a lot of insight into the character which is not really mentioned elsewhere, but also includes a great section on Orcs, which is what I want to look at today. Morgoth will have to wait another day.

The evil creatures in Tolkien’s legendarium are possibly the most confusing of ‘races’ in Tolkien’s works. So confusing, in fact, that it could be argued that they are not a ‘race’ at all (although Tolkien would refer to them as such). It is made clear in LOTR and other works that neither Morgoth nor Sauron could create and only take what is made and corrupt them so much under their will that they no longer resemble what they once were. (This fact has in recent months been repurposed as a paraphrased mantra in the fight against Amazon’s Rings of Power. Until recently it was the dominant phrase that flooded the YouTube comments section for the trailer but many have since been removed.) If the Orcs weren’t created by Eru Illuvatar, but were totally sentient and free-thinking beings, they must be a corruption of something. The question really is, what?

The shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them’

Frodo in The Return of the King

Many fans will know that they were ‘Elves once’, as Saruman so helpfully explains in Sir Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers. But is it that simple? The short answer is ‘maybe…?’ As with everything that Tolkien wrote, there’s a lot more behind them and while the information is out there for anyone to access, it can be a daunting prospect to many to have go through thousands of pages to learn the history behind the man’s creation. Thankfully there are indexes and thankfully I enjoy a good rummage!

Before, during and after writing LOTR, Tolkien seems to flip flop on what Orcs actually are but it can be said at least that they are truly damned creatures. It is clear that he always intended for them to be related to the Elves in some way but he was later very clear that they were not simply corrupted Elves but a combination of various races that have been simply warped so much that they were barely anything more than beasts without fëar (spirit) akin to a horse or dog with a similar relationship to their masters. If anything, he later leaned more towards their origins in Men than Elves. As per the canon, however, it can be said that Orcs were originally Elves that became corrupt and twisted through Morgoth’s dark techniques as they first appear even before Men make an appearance in the world. In the History of Middle-earth and also in The Fall of Gondolin, they are also explained to have been ‘bred by Melko (Melkor) in the subterranean heat and slime’ (The Fall of Gondolin, p. 53) and they were also often confused amongst Men with the Noldoli elves who likely mixed in with the Orc race.

While Tolkien borrowed the word from Beowulf, within the world of Arda Orc itself is mainly said to come from the Elvish word orch but also may come from another Elvish word ‘(o)rok to denote anything that caused fear and/or horror’ (MR, p. 413) to the Elves. This word then is not exclusive to Orcs, at least initially. It would then later be applied exclusively to them, possibly with some influence with the Common Speech and other languages of Men. Orcs – in the sense of the original meaning – would also include phantoms, trolls, etc. that were corruptions of various spirits and beings. They would also come to known as Melkorohíni, the ‘children (or slaves) of Melkor’.

The perfect Christmas gift (to me – cough)

These ‘children’ were ‘beasts of humanized shape’ (MR, p.410) perverted to be close in form to Men in an attempt to mock Eru’s creations, both Men and Elves. Their ability to speak was not indicative of their intelligence or cognisance but more an ability taught as one would a parrot, ‘reeling off “records” set in them by Melkor’ (ibid.). Later, though, they would be described as being able to communicate and form simple communities amongst themselves, particularly after Morgoth was banished and imprisoned and they were left to their own devices until Sauron took control. I always thought it was a bit ridiculous at the sheer number of Orcs that were shown on screen in Sir Peter Jackson’s trilogy, but it would appear that they ‘bred and multiplied rapidly when undisturbed’, which they would have been for a very long time. How exactly they breed is something I personally don’t need or want to know about. Saruman, however, evidently found out how and continued Morgoth’s vile breeding of Men and Orcs, further changing them to his own will.

Orcs were bred to hate all other creations much in the same way that Morgoth himself did, so much so that they hated each other and even Morgoth and later Sauron but were controlled through pure fear. In LOTR we see Orcs attacking (and eating!) one another, and the films do a good job of showing how savage and violent they can be to one another with little motive, whether they’re fighting in the tower of Cirith Ungol or devouring a fellow Orc on the outskirts of Fangorn. They are described as serkilixa or ‘blood-thirsty’ in that they literally ‘drank the blood of their victims’ (HOME, p. 176) – that might give us a good idea of what they made Merry drink during captivity!

The most surprising suggestion is that there may have been an ‘Elvish strain’ in them, that had been gradually reduced through breeding with beasts and later Men as well, further changing them in unimaginable ways. If they were purely corrupt Elves, it would be likely they would live as long lives, but they would live for no longer than the average Man. The idea that somehow Morgoth got beings such as Elves to somehow mate with the various beasts of the land is very disturbing and unsurprisingly not mentioned in The Hobbit or LOTR. The world of Middle-earth appears to be much darker and more disturbing than some would imagine! It’s not all jolly Hobbits dancing around drinking and smoking pipe weed.

We do see a bit of this in the films, but one other important aspect of the Orcs is that they are perhaps more varied than people think. Uruk-hai and ‘regular’ Orcs aside, Sauron apparently had difficulty with the ‘diversity of the Orcs in breed and language’ (MR, p. 419) as they diverged, formed their own languages and, dare I say perhaps cultures, that created feuds but ultimately was able to ‘unite them all in unreasoning hatred of the Elves and of Men who associated with them’ (ibid., p. 420). At some point in the Second Age when Sauron was focussed on cozening Men and Elves in his fairest forms, the Eastern Orcs are said to have ‘despised him and laughed at him’ (HOME, p. 376) but would eventually return under his leadership when the time came to attack Elves and Men after much ‘breeding and training’ ‘into tribes of strong and cruel warriors’ (ibid., p. 361) and Sauron revealing himself in his darker form.

The hatred that Orcs have towards Men and Elves in particular is something that lasts throughout millennia, which may seem unreasonable to many, but it has to be understood that their whole being is founded on hatred and the very will of Morgoth runs through them and the lands in which they inhabit. Sauron may have put much of his power and malice into the One Ring, but Morgoth put it into the very essence of Middle-earth itself, including all of his warped creations.

Orcs are undoubtedly the most numerous of Morgoth’s servants, albeit easily the weakest overall. While initially they could be considered mere husks or simple-minded beasts little different to any wild animals, in The Lord of the Rings, we meet a number of Orcs from various clans that have real characters of their own.

We have a number of chances to get to know more of their nature in Tolkien’s stories.

Our first encounter with Orcs is a confusing one; they’re not even called Orcs! The Hobbit introduces us to the Great Goblin who rules over a large group of goblins deep in the mountains in Goblin-town. We know from this meeting that Goblins are perfectly adept at talking and when Gandalf’s sword is shown to the Great Goblin, he cowers and howls in fear at this famous blade that is known to many Goblins. Orchist is its name, which means ‘Goblin-cleaver’ and was used in ancient wars and killed many. This shows that some Orc tribes had their own culture of which history is an important part. We can also see the connection between the word Goblin and Orc in Orchist. While many may believe that these are two different monsters, they really are just the same. Tolkien tended to use the two words interchangeably but not to any real effect to the story or the lore of his created world.

The Goblins in the 1977 animated film, The Hobbit.

Not only can we establish a sense of culture, but family as well. Later in the story we are introduced to Azog the Defiler and his son, Bolg. For whatever reason, Peter Jackson decided to keep Azog alive in his films but in the book, he was dead and his son Bolg was the antagonist. I believe this is the only mention of a father-son relationship in the Orc world but it does show indisputable evidence that Orc families (or at least familial relationships) existed.

Azog as portrayed in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy.

This then begs the question: were there female Orcs? The simple answer is yes. Tolkien himself wrote that there must be female Orcs in the well-known Munby Letter, a 6-page letter where Tolkien discusses various aspects of Middle-earth, including the existence of ‘Orc-women’. The Silmarillion also states that Orcs reproduced ‘after the manner of the Children of Illuvatar’ (The Silmarillion, p. 47) being Men and Elves, which further adds to this fact. In The Lord of the Rings, Saruman is thought to be breeding Orcs and Men, which one surely would not want to imagine! It’s possible that this would essentially mean that Orcs would rape women to reproduce (unless, of course, there were some women with a particular love of Orcs. You never know…), which as I mentioned earlier, is quite a dark side of Tolkien’s writings that perhaps he and his readers gave very little thought. A wicked act by those who are wicked.

Although there is no mention of female Orcs in Tolkien’s writings, he does admit the necessity. Image from IGN.

In The Rings of Power it sounds like we will get our first look at female Orcs, although at this stage it is unknown what role they will play. Undoubtedly it will be a prominent role as things are in entertainment right now, but I’ll leave my opinions out of this. There are some who complain about their inclusion, but there’s no reason to think there weren’t female Orcs in the thick of it. I don’t think Tolkien ever refers to the sex of the Orcs that are in the many battles as he does with Men, but I could be wrong there.

I am sure the sexual relationships of Orcs is at the very bottom of people’s interests in these creatures, so I will draw the line there on that topic and move onto the next close encounter with the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings, when Merry and Pippin are captured and on their way to Isengard.

In this part of the story we get a glimpse of the relationships between different Orc tribes, mainly resulting from the master whom they serve; Sauron for the northern Orcs and Saruman for the Uruk-hai who featured heavily during the Battle of Helm’s Deep. It is clear from their conversations in the book that there was much distrust and discontent between these different tribes and they would be quick to anger with no hesitation to chop off a head or two to get their own way. It is thought that they are cannibalistic between tribes as well, although I do not believe there was anything written that seriously suggested that. In Peter Jackson’s film The Two Towers, we do see this particular group of Orcs gratefully gorging on Orc-flesh with the famous line ‘Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!’ A great and certainly memorable line for a movie, but not one that likely the Orcs would ever have said. (Do you think Orcs have menus?)

I’d probably do the same if all I’d had to eat was maggoty bread for three stinking days.

This aspect is also later found nearer the end of Frodo and Sam’s journey to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring. After Frodo is captured by the Orcs of Mordor, they quickly bicker and fight over his valuable Mithril chain mail. The argument results in a full-out skirmish where many Orcs end up killing one another, further exploring their self-hatred and inter-tribal discontent. It’s no wonder they can’t win any wars!

While they are often described as strong, they never seem to be all too successful on the battlefield. However, that is not totally the case. Orcs have had some success in a number of battles in the history of the world, admittedly few and far between. Their first victory against the Elves was in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears and then later in The Fall of Gondolin. While they are often described as a formidable force, very rarely do they have success. Their strength lies in their numbers to overwhelm their enemies.

To finish, I think it’s clear that Tolkien created these beings as hate-fuelled machines that were bent on wanton destruction, as was so bred into them by the cruel master Morgoth. They are without redemption and are altogether evil. To be pitied, for sure, but perhaps not to be sympathised with. Their origins are unclear and will always be open to discussion. I really like that about Tolkien’s works where they really are legends in the fact that no-one really knows what is and isn’t canon, as much as people will argue otherwise. Orcs are perhaps the most famous of Tolkien’s enemies in popular culture and have made their way into everyday vocabulary along with the word hobbit. My hope is that Amazon don’t try to make these creatures into a ‘misunderstood’ race and keep them doing what they do best: be evil.

That’s it from me for now. Ta-ta.

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