Yrch! Tolkien’s Orcs: Villainy’s Footsoldiers, Ethnic Others, or Mere Cannon Fodder?

©2006 Ross E. Lockhart

“And where is the Orcish Fire in the Lake? The book that sees things from the Orcish perspective? It will never be written. The Orcish historian who was going to write that book was crushed by a large piece of cement outside Minas Tirith. History is written by Elves. And this history would have us believe that Bilbo Baggins was a brave Hobbit who had wonderful adventures, rather than a thief, a liar, and a primary agent of genocide.” – “Howard Zinn” (Alexander and Bissell)

“History is written by Elves,” claims the illustrious historian’s fictional doppelganger that I’ve quoted for my epigram, and the high fantasy tone of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth cycle, The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, bears out that sentiment, if in spirit. The history of Middle-earth, though scribed by an Oxford Professor rather than an honest-to-goodness Elf, is an Elf-centric document, favoring the “First-born” (Carpenter 147) Elves among all Middle-earth’s humanoid races. Elves are fair, wise, and ageless examples of all that is right with civilization, an enviable culture valuing above all those virtues which Tolkien himself most prized: speech, song, and poetry. Not only does the narrative voice guiding a reader through The Lord of the Rings affect an Eldar-centric position in chronicling the struggle against Sauron in the War of the Ring, but Elvish mythology and folklore saturates the saga. Throughout The Lord of the Rings, old Elvish songs are sung and old Elvish tales are told. J.R.R. Tolkien loves his Elves, and once admitted that had he been writing for his own pleasure rather than for an audience, “there would have been a great deal more Elvish in the book” (216).

The other humanoid races of Middle-earth, hospitable Hobbits, stalwart Dwarves, and rugged Men, are all measured against the immortal shadow of untainted and elegant Elves. It is from these ranks that Tolkien gathers his heroes, for these are the races that will ascend to prominence as the Elves depart Middle-earth, and these heroes will shape Middle-earth’s political landscape and future according to Elvish design. Heavily drawn from examples and archetypes set deep in Western European mythological traditions, Tolkien’s heroes embody the aspects and elements of European culture, values, and history that Tolkien valued, and he has hand-picked these aspects in order to best showcase his imagined world. Tolkien’s are strong, handsome heroes, ripe for the reader to identify with. Tolkien could not have focused on a better group of characters through which to frame his attempt to “restore to the English an epic tradition and present them with a mythology of their own” (231). Because of this keen focus, the reader connects with the struggle against an Enemy shared by Elrond, Gandalf, Bilbo, Frodo and nearly every other humanoid character that he meets along the way. Along with these humanoid protagonists, the reader fights an Enemy vile, dark, foreboding, and overwhelming (but not unbeatable). And in the camp of that Enemy we find the least favored of Middle-earth races, that uncouth, ill-mannered, dark-skinned goblinoid people known as Orcs.

In the half-century since the publication of The Lord of the Rings, Orcs have achieved a pop-culture prominence unmatched by any of Tolkien’s other invented races. From depictions in the numerous artistic and cinematic interpretations of Tolkien’s works to appearances in role-playing, miniature combat simulation, and computer games, Orcs have become ingrained in popular culture, spending the last several decades evolving into the de facto fantasy fiction cannon fodder of choice. Products depicting Orcs can be found readily at most mass-market toy stores; on the other end of the scale, a recent high-end “action figure” of Lurtz, an Uruk-hai created for the Peter Jackson-directed The Fellowship of the Ring regularly sells for hundreds of dollars on auction websites. As much as these derivative works have expanded upon the public persona of Orcs, the general perception remains that Tolkien’s Orcs themselves are simply enigmatic, relatively faceless footsoldiers, destined for defeat.

The origin of the name “Orc” is debatable. Ruth S. Noel claims that the term “orc, the Old English word for demon, and ogre are derived from Orcus, the name of the Roman god of the underworld.” She also points out that “Orc is also the Irish word for pig. […] The comparison with swine only begins to suggest the qualities of Tolkien’s filthy, demonic, cannibalistic Orcs” (145). While Noel’s account sounds plausible, a more likely scenario is offered by Tom Shippey in J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, locating the origins of the Orcs in Beowulf. Shippey writes that two compounds, “orc-neas,” meaning “demon corpses” and “orc-þyrs,” which “is found also in Old Norse and means something like ‘giant'” (88) are the most likely sources of Tolkien’s Orcs, a mix of “demons, giants, zombies.” As Shippey elaborates, “Tolkien took the word, brought the concept into clear focus in detailed scenes […] and, as with hobbits, has in a way made both word and thing now canonical” (88).

But there is more to the average Orc than meets the eye. Orcs aren’t simply “a newer and better mutation of goblins” (Wynne Jones 139) or mere cannon fodder, but they are a nuanced, if marginalized, culture worthy of attention. By examining a few key scenes in The Lord of the Rings where Orcs appear or are discussed by other characters, a careful reader can discern that, like every other character in Tolkien’s cycle, the Orcs, as a race, undergo a profound arc. From their beginnings as shadowy, anonymous hordes lurking in the dark spaces that civilization has failed to illuminate, Orcs are revealed, over the course of The Lord of the Rings, to be individual characters, with names, histories, personalities, and independent thoughts on their role in the War of the Ring.

A reader’s first encounter with Orcs comes quite early in The Lord of the Rings, as he is informed that a simple Hobbit, one Bandobras Took, “routed an invasion of Orcs” during the only battle to have “ever been fought within the borders of the Shire […] the Battle of Greenfields, S.R. 1147” (14). This off-the-cuff reference simultaneously showcases the Shire’s separation from global events and preemptively downplays the threat Orcs will pose later in the narrative. After all, creatures easily routed by a lowly Took could hardly be “the barbarous militia of the malign spirit or fallen angel Sauron, the Dark Lord, who has re-arisen in Middle-earth after a long age of oblivion” (Rosebury 8).

We encounter Orcs again a few pages later in the prologue, as Bilbo’s adventures in The Hobbit are recounted. His experiences with Goblins are rephrased, claiming here that Bilbo and company were “assailed by Orcs” (FotR 20) in order to indicate that Goblins and Orcs are one and the same.

Hundreds of pages pass, and the Fellowship’s quest is well underway, before the reader finally encounters an Orc in the flesh. Through passing mentions, vague comparisons, and subtle insinuation, Tolkien allows the reputation of the Orcs to build through rumor and legend, ultimately climaxing the party’s excursion through the Mines of Moria with an ominous crescendo of drums that erupts into an all-out assault by hundreds of Orcs and the brutal Balrog.

The first real face-to-face encounter with an Orc is with “a huge orc-chieftain, almost man-high, clad in black mail from head to foot […] His broad flat face was swart, his eyes were like coals, and his tongue was red; he wielded a great spear” (FotR 339). Whether this chieftain is one of the “large and evil” “black Uruks of Mordor” (338) identified by Gandalf is not explained, though it is implied. Instead, Tolkien focuses in on the action, the “thrust of his huge hide shield” and the martial maneuvers the Orc executes with “the speed of a striking snake” (339). Threatening though he may be, however, this Orc is no match for Andúril-wielding Aragorn, and he is soon dispatched by a helmet-cleaving blow that inspires his underlings to rout.

The party, realizing that they are outnumbered, retreats as well, following Gandalf down to the Bridge of Khazd-Dûm as war drums sound and ominous Orc voices shout ghâsh, or “fire” in the darkness. As black-feathered arrows rain down, Frodo steals a look back in the direction from which they’ve fled, spying a terrifying sight. “Beyond the fire he saw swarming black figures: there seemed to be hundreds of orcs. They brandished spears and scimitars which shone red as blood in the firelight. Doom, doom rolled the drum-beats, growing louder and louder, doom, doom” (FotR 343). Here, Tolkien continues the red-and-black motif he established with the Orc chieftan, simultaneously unifying the Orcish horde into a single undistinguished threat and establishing a color palette and dramatic soundscape that accommodate the larger-than-life supernatural presence of the flaming Balrog.

Though the Fellowship suffers a major setback in their encounter with the Balrog via the fall of Gandalf, the Orcs of Moria, while threatening, appear to be incapable of causing any real physical harm to the party. Like funhouse ghosts, the Orcs of Moria provide frights and thrills by jumping out of the darkness and yelling “Boo,” then retreating to the darkness. Because of the ineffective nature of the Orcish threat, shortly after their escape from the mines the party falls into familiar patterns where Orcs are concerned, attempting to frame their understanding of the enemy through legend and hearsay. Gimli the Dwarf warns that “Orcs will often pursue foes for many leagues into the plain, if they have a fallen captain to avenge” (FotR 351), though he does not reveal how he has come by this tidbit of information. This line of inquiry, illustrating that the Orcs are acting outside of expected norms, continues in The Two Towers, when Legolas states “Seldom will Orcs journey in the open under the sun, yet these have done so […] Certainly they will not rest by night” (TT 27). Although both Gimli and Legolas are famous Orc-slayers, celebrated for their martial skills, perhaps Tolkien is indicating that neither one understands the Orcish temperament as well as he claims to.

The Fellowship of the Ring ends on a striking chord, as party and cause are betrayed from within. Boromir’s treachery against the Hobbits is shocking, particularly coming, as it does, on the tail of the misadventure in Moria and the Fellowship’s brief visit to the safe haven of Lothlórien. When Frodo dons the Ring in order to evade Boromir’s grasp, he sees, altered through the lens of Ring-heightened perception, a frightening sight. “Everywhere he looked he saw the signs of war. The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills: orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes” (416). By closing The Fellowship of the Ring on this visceral image of Orcs overwhelming the landscape like so many swarming insects Tolkien effectively brands Orcs as disgusting, sub-human creatures to be reviled, a hive-mind of creepy-crawly, dangerous things.

At the start of The Two Towers, Orcs have captured Merry and Pippin, Frodo and Sam have sailed off to fulfill their role in the adventure, and it falls to the remaining members of the Fellowship, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas, to examine Orc-corpses and discern what they should do next. It is Aragorn that makes the first major discovery, realizing that among the carnage and piles of “swords and cloven helms and shields” (TT 17) are weapons and bodies that do not match those of expected types of Orcs. “Here lie many that are not folk of Mordor,” says Aragorn. “Some are from the North, from the Misty Mountains, if I know anything of Orcs and their kinds. And here are others strange to me. Their gear is not after the manner of Orcs at all!” (17).

These strange Orcs, “goblin-soldiers of greater stature, swart, slant-eyed, with thick legs and large hands,” are equipped in a manner different than what Aragorn expects. Instead of “the curved scimitars usual with Orcs,” these Orcs are armed “with short broad-bladed swords” and “bows of yew, in length and shape like the bows of Men.” More troubling is the insignia they displayed: “Upon their shields they bore a strange device: a small white hand in the centre of a black field; on the front of their iron helms was set an S-rune, wrought of some white metal” (17-18). The strange Orcs are, of course, Saruman’s Uruk-hai, as the reader discovers once the focus of the tale shifts back to Merry and Pippin in captivity.

In the chapter titled “The Uruk-Hai,” Tolkien first invokes the Hobbits’ fear and discomfort in bondage by showcasing the most nightmarish aspects of the Orcish horde through Pippin’s disturbing dream: “hundreds of hideous orc-faces grinned at him out of the shadows, hundreds of hideous arms grasped at him from every side. Where was Merry?” (47). It is through the grimace of the Other, the rough handling by “hideous arms,” and the isolation insinuated through Pippin’s question that Tolkien effectively begins the chapter on a dreadful note. He then answers Pippin’s question, “Where was Merry?” through a brief recounting of the circumstances of their capture. As the pair were set upon by Goblinoid soldiers, “Merry and he had drawn their swords, but the Orcs did not wish to fight, and had tried only to lay hold of them, even when Merry had cut off several of their arms and hands. Good old Merry!” (47). Good old Merry, indeed. By focusing in on Merry’s gleeful maiming of the capturing Orcs, Orcs that even Pippin realizes “did not wish to fight,” so soon after Pippin’s nightmare of disembodied Orcish arms, it seems that Tolkien is attempting to indicate that Pippin feels some degree of guilt over the excessive violence he and his companion metered out during the capture.

But that guilt is short-lived, as we soon move from memories of the recent past to the desperate situation of the present. As Pippin struggles to free himself from bondage, lamenting his position as “a piece of luggage” (48) stolen by the Orcs, he is addressed by one of his captors. “Rest while you can, little fool!” says the Orc, and while he phrases his admonition “in the Common Speech,” to Pippin’s ears, the Orc’s accent is “almost as hideous as his own language,” a language that Pippin calls an “abominable tongue.”

Pippin soon hears more “abominable” Orcish, as he is threatened by another Orc, a fellow with “yellow fangs” and a “black knife with a long jagged blade.” “If I had my way, you’d wish you were dead now,” hisses this Orc. “I’d make you squeak, you miserable rat […] Don’t draw attention to yourself, or I may forget my orders.” The Orc then falls into a “muttering and snarling” “long angry speech in his own tongue”: “Curse the Isengarders! Uglúk u bagronk sha pushdug Saruman-glob búbhosh skai” (48). Tolkien’s rendering of the Orcish curse as a series of nigh-unpronounceable syllables that Brian Rosebury calls “stylized snarls” and “bowdlerized suggestions of excremental vituperation” (75) manages to evoke the foreignness and sheer discomfort of the Hobbits’ captivity. As Rosebury observes, “more overt obscenity and violence would not so much offend twentieth-century sensibilities as evoke, incongruously, the world of the twentieth-century crime novel” (75-76), thus breaking the verisimilitude and compromising the storytelling.

The Isengarders that the Orc curses are Saruman’s Uruk-hai, one of the three distinct tribes or sub-races of Orcs present, each of which have their own plans for the Hobbits. In addition to the Uruk-hai, there are Moria Orcs (of which our cursing complainer was likely a member) and a cadre of Black Uruks loyal to Mordor. According to Ruth S. Noel’s The Mythology of Middle-Earth, “Uruk was the word in the Black Speech for the largest Orcs. In Sindarin Elvish, the word for Orc was orch and the plural was yrch” (145). The Mordor Orcs, under the leadership of Grishnákh, have been commanded by Sauron to bring the Hobbits, alive, back to Mordor. The Uruk-hai, lead by Uglúk, are, on the other hand, under orders to return the Hobbits to Saruman at Isengard. As diametrically opposed as the two captains’ goals may be, they find themselves united in preventing the Moria Orcs from fulfilling their own goal, avenging their fallen by killing (and perhaps even eating) the hostages, and then returning home to the Mines.

While the rank-and-file Moria Orcs most likely represent a typically Orcish temperament, one of disengagement and self-determination instead of servitude in a “closed militaristic culture of hatred and cruelty” (Rosebury 75), the tenuous relationship between Uglúk and Grishnákh represents the larger-scale struggle for dominance between Sauron and Saruman. It is the “almost cerebral” Grishnákh that wins out, if temporarily, over his “arrogant warrior horde”-leading rival Uglúk (Rosebury 75). Spurned on by his belief that the Hobbits possess the Ring, Grishnákh takes advantage of an attack by “Whiteskins,” the “filthy horse-boys” (TT 58) of Rohan and spirits the Hobbits away from the Orcish camp. “Like a melodrama villain, or a public-school bully” (Rosebury 75), Grishnákh taunts the Hobbits with suggestions of torture as he searches them for the Ring, saying, “everything you have, and everything you know, will be got out of you in due time: everything! You’ll wish there was more that you could tell to satisfy the Questioner, indeed you will: Quite soon” (TT 59). Though the Hobbits attempt to turn the situation to their advantage through insincere offers of cooperation in return for being untied and mocking impressions of Gollum, they only succeed in exasperating Grishnákh’s rage. When Grishnákh is killed by one of the Riders of Rohan, they are lucky to survive, unseen beneath his struck-down body.

Another duo of Orcs worthy of our attention are Shagrat and Gorbag, who Samwise encounters in the Tower of Cirith Ungol in Mordor after Frodo has fallen victim to Shelob’s poison. Made invisible by the Ring, Samwise listens in on several of their exchanges, following along in the shadows as the pair drag off Frodo’s body. Shagrat’s greeting to Gorbag and Gorbag’s response hints at the differences and similarities between the two Orcs: “Hola! Gorbag!” calls Shagrat. “What are you doing up here? Had enough of War already?” (TT 344) Shagrat, the Uruk captain in charge of guarding the pass into Mordor, not only indicates surprise that Gorbag is in the vicinity of the Tower instead of on the front lines, but also insinuates that the reason for Gorbag’s arrival is for the less valorous reason that he has become tired of fighting. Gorbag, on the other hand, first asserts his own loyalty, attributing his presence at the Tower to “Orders, you lubber,” then inverts Shagrat’s insinuation, accusing him of being “tired of lurking up there” and asking if he’s “thinking of coming down to fight.” As Anne C. Petty observes in Tolkien in the Land of Heroes, “As bad as they are, the orcs also show fear, disgust, and regret – sentiments of the common fighting man in any armed conflict” (133), and it would seem that Tolkien, himself a veteran of the First World War, drew heavily on his experiences as a fighting man in crafting these war-weary Orcs. Furthermore, the Orcs’ “worms’-eye view of what is going on,” claims Michael N. Stanton, “gives us a refreshingly irreverent perspective on supposedly terrible and powerful Evil” (142).

A short time later, as Gorbag discusses the War effort and how much Nazgúl give him “the creeps” with Shagrat, Gorbag suggests that he and Shagrat form an alliance and desert. “What d’you say?-if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.” This bold, if treacherous, statement causes Shagrat to reminisce. “Ah!” he says, “Like old times” (TT 347).

As tempting as life without Big Bosses may be, by the time the narrative returns to the duo in The Return of the King, Shagrat and Gorbag have “come to blows” (RotK 175), their garrisons wiping one another out in a conflict over Frodo’s mithril shirt and Elven cloak. As Michael N. Stanton observes in Hobbits, Elves, and Wizards, “not only do these internal quarrels aid the Hobbits; they also harm the Orcs themselves. Arguments which come to knife-point can only impede decision, and action, and military movement” (142). As with Merry and Pippin’s experience with Uglúk and Grishnákh on the planes of Rohan, Orcish infighting works in favor of the Hobbits, leading to their escape.

Once the Ring is destroyed, and after much celebrating and general dénouement, the quartet of Hobbits return home to the Shire only to discover that their homeland has been overrun by Half-Orcs, “squint-eyed and sallow-faced” fellows resembling “that friend of Bill Ferney’s at Bree” (RotK 283). Though they bemoan having “to fight half-orcs and ruffians in the Shire itself” (285), the Hobbits are quick to arms, and quickly rout the threat posed by the Half-Orcs and their master, Saruman, doing so about as quickly as Bandobras Took had back in S.R. 1147. While the easily-dispatched threat of the Half-Orcs serves to end The Lord of the Rings on a triumphant note, illustrating that the Hobbits have come full circle, evolving into full-fledged heroes, there is a troubling aspect to this incursion by Half-Orcs. Had the invaders been full-blood Orcs, displaced by the fall of Sauron and taking advantage of the undefended Shire, the threat would have been equivocal to an attack by any other fantastic monster. However, these are Half-Orcs, mixed-race invaders, and the most fearsome thing about them is that they somehow infiltrated the Shire through miscegenation.

This worrisome turn, further muddled by Tolkien’s statement that Orcs resemble “degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types” (Carpenter 274) smacks of the Yellow-Peril sensationalism of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels and the paranoid race-based fantasy/horror of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or Robert E. Howard’s “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula.” Perhaps Tolkien could have better chosen his words, after all, unlike Rohmer, Lovecraft, and Howard, he did take steps to distance himself from racist ideals, writing to Stanley Unwin that he regretted “giving any colour to the notion that [he] subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine” (37).

While Orcs would seem to fit into the natural world of Middle-earth about as well as do any of Middle-earth’s races, Tolkien complicates matters further in The Silmarillion, revealing that Orcs are not the result of natural evolution, but are instead a created race, bred by Melkor “in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes” (50). This would seem to dispel any notions that Orcs possess free will and a sense of self-determination, but doesn’t the evidence provided by our face-to-face encounters with Orcs throughout The Lord of the Rings say otherwise?

Orcs, who “had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar” (50) are more than just a puppet race, created solely to serve Evil. Orcs are, in The Lord of the Rings, a race marginalized through Elvish aesthetics and the mounting military might of mankind. Like any race displaced by expansion and colonialism, Orcish habits appear backwards, uncouth, and perhaps even disgusting. But Orcs deserve to be considered as more than mere menacing monsters destined to be defeated by heroes and banished to the fringes of society. Though stereotyped as “cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted” creatures, Orcs are a ingenious and creative lot, capable of forging, as Tolkien writes in The Hobbit, “hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture” (60).

Perhaps Orcs, as evidenced by the Half-Orcs present among the Shire invaders, have preformed some counter-colonization of their own, for evidence of Orcish genes could almost certainly be found in Modern humans equally capable of creating “instruments of torture” (60). After all, when Tolkien wrote of Orcs in The Hobbit “it is not unlikely that they have invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them” (60), he might just as well have been discussing Modern Man. While Orcs may represent the worst of human behaviors, including amorality, greed, fear, and devotion to unworthy leaders and causes, those qualities are equally present in each of us. Though we may dream of being Elves, deep down all of us are Orcs.

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