An Orc is a fictional humanoid creature akin to a goblin. Earlier fictional monsters with names similar to "orc" can be found in the Old English poem Bēowulf, in Early Modern poetry, and in European folk tales and fairy tales.
Orcs were brought into modern usage by the fantasy writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, especially The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien stated in a letter to the novelist Naomi Mitchison that his Orcs had been influenced by George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin.
In Tolkien's works, orcs are a brutish, aggressive, ugly and malevolent race, contrasting with the benevolent Elves and serving an evil power, though they share a human sense of morality. His description of them has been criticized as caricature-like, even racist by some commentators, though others have noted that he was clearly anti-racist by intention.
Tolkien's concept of orcs has been adapted and imported into the fantasy fiction of other authors, and into role-playing and strategy games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy, and Warcraft.
The Latin "Orcus" is glossed as "Orc, þyrs, oððe hel-deofol" ("Goblin, spectre, or hell-devil") in the 10th century Old English Cleopatra Glossary, about which Thomas Wright wrote:
- "Orcus was the name for Pluto, the god of the infernal regions, hence we can easily understand the explanation of hel-deofol. Orc, in Anglo-Saxon, like thyrs, means a spectre, or goblin."
The Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal defines "Ork" in the closely related Old Dutch language as a "verslindend monster" ("devouring monster"), and points at a possible origin in the Old Dutch "Nork" ("petulant, crabbed, evil person.")
The term is used just once in Bēowulf as the plural compound "Orcnéas," one of the tribes alongside the elves and ettins (giants) condemned by God:
—Beowulf, Fitt I, vv. 111–14
—John R. Clark Hall, tr. (1901)
Orcnéas is translated "evil spirits" above, but its meaning is uncertain. Klaeber suggested it consisted of orc < L. orcus "the underworld" + neas "corpses", which the translation "evil spirits" failed to do justice. It is generally supposed to contain an element -né, cognate to Gothic naus and Old Norse nár, both meaning 'corpse'. The usual Old English word for corpse is líc, but -né appears in nebbed 'corpse bed', and in dryhtné 'dead body of a warrior', where dryht is a military unit. If *orcné is to be glossed as orcus 'corpse', the meaning may be "corpse from Orcus (i.e. the underworld)", or "devil-corpse", understood as some sort of walking dead creature.
A monster called Orcus is mentioned in Edmund Spenser's 1590 fairyrie Queene. The Oxford English Dictionary records an Early Modern period orke, meaning "ogre", in Samuel Holland's 1656 fairy tale Don Zara, a pastiche of Spanish romances such as Don Quixote. It is presumed that 'orke'/'ogre' came into English via continental fairy-tales, especially from the 17th-century French writer Charles Perrault, who borrowed most of his stories and developed his "ogre" from the 16th-century Italian writers Giovanni Francesco Straparola (credited with introducing the literary form of the fairy tale) and Giambattista Basile, who wrote in the Naples dialect and claimed to be passing on oral folktales from his region. In the tales, Basile used huorco, huerco or uerco, the Neapolitan form of Italian orco, "giant" or "monster", to describe a large, hairy, tusked, mannish beast who could speak, lived in a dark forest or garden and might capture and eat humans.
The famous fiction writer J. R. R. Tolkien began the modern use of the English term "orc" to denote a race of evil, humanoid creatures. He explained that his "orc" was:
- "...derived from Old English orc 'demon', but only because of its phonetic suitability",
- "I originally took the word from Old English orc (Beowulf 112 orc-neas and the gloss orc: þyrs ('ogre'), heldeofol ('hell-devil')).
In some modern franchises such as Warhammer, orc is spelled with a "k" instead of a "c," though the traditional spelling is still common is other major franchises such as Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, and the Tolkien Legendarium franchise.
Orcs are of human shape, and of varying size. They are depicted as ugly and filthy, with a taste for human flesh. They are fanged, bow-legged and long-armed; some have dark skin as if burned. Most are small and avoid daylight. In Isengard, the Wizard Saruman has bred a large and powerful kind of orc, the Uruk-Hai, who are not afraid of daylight.
Orcs eat meat, including the flesh of Men, and may indulge in cannibalism: in The Two Towers, Grishnákh, an Orc from Mordor, claims that the Isengard Orcs eat orc-flesh. Whether that is true or spoken in malice is uncertain: an Orc flings Pippin stale bread and a "strip of raw dried flesh... the flesh of he dared not guess what creature".
The orcs from Mordor speak the Black Speech, a language invented for them by Sauron, while those from Isengard speak other tongues; to understand each other, they use the Common Speech (Westron), such as Pippin overheard and understood.
Tolkien's earliest Elvish dictionaries include the entry Ork (orq-) "monster", "ogre", "demon", together with orqindi and "ogresse". He sometimes used the plural form orqui in his early texts. He stated that the Elvish words for orc were derived from a root ruku, "fear, horror"; in Quenya, orco, plural orkor; in Sindarin orch, plurals yrch and Orchoth (as a class).
They had similar names in other Middle-earth languages: uruk in Black Speech (restricted to the larger soldier-orcs); in the language of the Drúedain gorgûn, "ork-folk"; in Khuzdul rukhs, plural rakhâs; and in the language of Rohan and in the Common Speech, orka.
Tolkien also observed a connection with the Latin word orcus, noting that "the word used in translation of Q[uenya] urko, S[indarin] orch is Orc. But that is because of the similarity of the ancient English word orc, 'evil spirit or bogey', to the Elvish words. There is possibly no connection between them."
Tolkien proposed several theories for the origins of orcs. In The Tale of Tinúviel, Orcs originate as "foul broodlings of Melkor who fared abroad doing his evil work". In The Fall of Gondolin Tolkien wrote that "all that race were bred by Melko of the subterranean heats and slime." In The Silmarillion, Orcs are East Elves (Avari) enslaved, tortured, and bred by Morgoth; they "multiplied" like Elves and Men. Tolkien stated in a 1962 letter to a Mrs. Munsby that Orc-females must have existed. In The Fall of Gondolin Morgoth made them of slime by sorcery, "bred from the heats and slimes of the earth". Or, they were "The Orcs were beasts of humanized shape", possibly, Tolkien wrote, Elves mated with beasts, and later Men. Or again, Tolkien noted, they could have been fallen Maiar, perhaps a kind called Boldog, like lesser Balrogs; or corrupted Men.
Half-orcs appear in The Lord of the Rings, created by interbreeding of Orcs and Men; they were able to go in sunlight. The "sly Southerner" in The Fellowship of the Ring looks "more than half like a goblin"; similar but more orc-like hybrids appear in The Two Towers "man-high, but with goblin-faces, sallow, leering, squint-eyed."
The scholars of English literature William N. Rogers II and Michael R. Underwood note that a widespread element of late 19th century Western culture was fear of moral decline and degeneration; this led to eugenics. In The Two Towers, the Ent Treebeard says
- "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!
The film-maker Andrew Stewart, writing in CounterPunch, cites this speech as an instance of "mid-twentieth century scientific racism .. which alarmingly spells out the notion of 'race mixing' as a great sin". Stewart notes, too, that the geography of Middle-earth deliberately pits the good West against the evil East; John Magoun, writing in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, concurs, asserting that Middle-earth has a fully-developed "moral geography".
In a private letter, Tolkien describes orcs as:
- "...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."
A variety of critics and commentators have noted that orcs are somewhat like caricatures of non-Europeans. The journalist David Ibata writes that the orcs in Peter Jackson's Tolkien films look much like "the worst depictions of the Japanese drawn by American and British illustrators during World War II." The literary critic Jenny Turner, writing in the London Review of Books, endorses Andrew O'Hehir's comment on Salon.com that orcs are "by design and intention a northern European's paranoid caricature of the races he has dimly heard about". O'Hehir describes orcs as "a subhuman race bred by Morgoth and/or Sauron (although not created by them) that is morally irredeemable and deserves only death. They are dark-skinned and slant-eyed, and although they possess reason, speech, social organization and, as Shippey mentions, a sort of moral sensibility, they are inherently evil." He notes Tolkien's own description of them (quoted above), saying it could scarcely be more revealing of his attitude to the "Other", but excuses him saying that "it is also the product of his background and era, like most of our inescapable prejudices. At the level of conscious intention, he was not a racist or an anti-Semite" and mentions his letters to this effect. The scholar of English literature Robert Tally describes the orcs as a demonized enemy, despite (he writes) Tolkien's own objections to demonization of the enemy in the two World Wars. The Germanic studies scholar Sandra Ballif Straubhaar however argues against the "recurring accusations" of racism, stating that "a polycultured, polylingual world is absolutely central" to Middle-earth, and that readers and filmgoers will easily see that.
The Tolkien critic Tom Shippey writes that the orcs in The Lord of the Rings share the human concept of good and evil, with a familiar sense of morality, though he notes that, like many people, orcs are quite unable to apply their morals to themselves. In his view, Tolkien took it as read that "evil cannot make, only mock", so orcs could not have an equal and opposite morality to that of men or elves. Shippey notes that in The Two Towers, the orc Gorbag disapproves of the "regular elvish trick" of seeming to abandon a comrade, as he wrongly supposes Sam has done with Frodo. Shippey describes the implied view of evil as Boethian, that evil is the absence of good; he notes however that Tolkien did not agree with that point of view, believing that evil had to be actively combatted, with war if necessary, the Manichean position.
In the fantasy series The Harrow, author Philip Mazza includes a race of orcs or the Gulguthra in the ancient tongue. The Gulguthra are members of the Brood, or En' Rauko, an evil race that occupy a post-apocalypse fantasy world. They have low jutting foreheads, snouts, ray-green skin, reddish eyes, large canine teeth, and short pointed ears.
As a response to their type-casting as generic evil characters or antagonists, some novels portray events from the point of view of the orcs, or present them as more sympathetic characters. Mary Gentle's 1992 novel Grunts! presents orcs as generic infantry, used as metaphorical cannon-fodder. A series of books by Stan Nicholls, Orcs: First Blood, focuses on the conflicts between orcs and humans, from the orcs' point of view. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, Orcs are a race that is close to extinction; in his Unseen Academicals it is said that "When the Evil Emperor wanted fighters he got some of the Igors to turn goblins into orcs" to be used as weapons in a Great War, "encouraged" by whips and beatings.
Since the publication of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, orcs have become a fixture of fantasy fiction and role-playing games, where orcs and goblins are usually distinct races of goblinoids. In the fantasy tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, orcs were one of the earliest creatures introduced in the game, and were largely based upon those described by Tolkien. The D&D orcs are a tribal race of hostile and bestial humanoids with muscular frames, large canine teeth and snouts rather than human-like noses. The orc appears in the first edition Monster Manual (1977), where it is described as a fiercely competitive bully, a tribal creature often living underground. The mythology and attitudes of the orcs are described in detail in Dragon #62 (June 1982), in Roger E. Moore's article, "The Half-Orc Point of View", and the orc is further detailed in Paizo Publishing's book Classic Monsters Revisited (2008), on pages 52–57.
Games Workshop's Warhammer universe feature cunning and brutal Orcs in fantasy setting. In the Warhammer 40,000, a series of science-fiction games, they are green-skinned alien species, called 'Orks'. Orcs are an important race in the Warcraft, a high fantasy franchise created by Blizzard Entertainment. They are variously savage or "savage but noble" warriors and shamans, prodigiously muscled, with broad noses and distinctive tusked mouths. Several Orc characters from the Warcraft universe are playable heroes in the crossover multiplayer game Heroes of the Storm. In Hasbro's Heroscape products, Orcs come from the pre-historic planet Grut. They are blue-skinned, with prominent tusks or horns. Several Orc champions ride prehistoric animals (including a Tyrannosaurus rex, a Velociraptor and sabre-tooth tigers, known as Swogs.
- Carpenter 1981, #144
- Wright, Thomas (1873). A second volume of vocabularies. privately printed. p. 63.
- Pheifer, J. D. (1974). Old English Glosses in the Épinal-Erfurt Glossary. Oxford University Press. pp. 37, 106.(Repr. Sandpaper Books, 1998 ISBN: 0-19-811164-9 ), Gloss #698: orcus orc (Épinal); orci orc (Erfurt).
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- Klaeber 1950, p. 5.
- Klaeber 1950, p. 25
- Klaeber 1950, p. 183: Orcnéas: "evil spirits" does not bring out all the meaning. Orcnéas is compounded of orc (from the Lat. orcus "the underworld" or Hades) and neas "corpses." Necromancy was practised among the ancient German!
- Salu, Mary; Farrell, Robert T., eds. (1979). 'J. R. R. Tolkien, scholar and storyteller: Essays in Memoriam'. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 291. ISBN: 978-0-80141-038-3 .
- Brehaut, Patricia Kathleen (1961). Moot passages in Beowulf (Thesis). Stanford University. p. 8.
- Spenser, Edmund (1590). fairyrie Queene. Book II, Canto XII, line xlvii.
- "Orc" Oxford English Dictionary.
- Tolkien 1954, Book 3, ch. 3 "The Uruk-Hai"
- Canavan, A. P. (2012). "A.P. Canavan: "Let's hunt some orc!": Reevaluating the Monstrosity of Orcs". New York Review of Science Fiction. Retrieved 7 March 2020.
A version of this essay was presented at the International Conference on the Fantastic in 2012.
- Tolkien 1994, Appendix C "Elvish names for the Orcs", pp. 289–391
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Tale of Tinúviel
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fall of Gondolin
- Tolkien 1977, p. 40
- "The Science of Middle-earth: Sex and the Single Orc". TheOneRing.net. Retrieved 29 May 2009.
- Tolkien 1984, p. 159
- Tolkien 1993, "Myths transformed", text VIII
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- Tolkien 2009, p. 566
- Rogers, William N., II; Underwood, Michael R. (2000). Sir George Clark (ed.). Gagool and Gollum: Exemplars of Degeneration in King Solomon's Mines and The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 121–132. ISBN: 978-0-313-30845-1 .
- The Two Towers, Lord of the Rings Book 3, Ch. 4, "Treebeard"
- Stewart, Andrew (29 August 2018). "From the Shire to Charlottesville: How Hobbits Helped Rebuild the Dark Tower for Scientific Racism". CounterPunch. Retrieved 4 March 2020.
- Magoun, John F. G. (2006). "South, The". In Drout, Michael D. C. (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Routledge. pp. 622–623. ISBN: 1-135-88034-4 .
- Carpenter 1981, #210
- Ibata, David (12 January 2003). "'Lord' of racism? Critics view trilogy as discriminatory". The Chicago Tribune.
- Turner, Jenny (15 November 2001). "Reasons for Liking Tolkien". London Review of Books. 23 (22).
- O'Hehir, Andrew (6 June 2001). "A curiously very great book". Salon.com. Retrieved 3 March 2020.
- Tally, Robert (2019). "Demonizing the Enemy, Literally: Tolkien, Orcs, and the Sense of the World Wars". Humanities. 8 (1): 54. doi:10.3390/h8010054. ISSN 2076-0787.
- Straubhaar, Sandra Ballif (2004). Chance, Jane (ed.). Myth, Late Roman History, and Multiculturalism in Tolkien's Middle-Earth. Tolkien and the invention of myth : a reader. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 101–117. ISBN: 978-0-8131-2301-1 .
- Shippey 2005, pp. 362, 438 (chapter 5, note 14).
- Shippey 2001, pp. 131-133.
- Mazza, Philip (2014). The Harrow: From Under a Tree. Omni Publishers of NY. ISBN: 978-0997710908 .
- "Stan Nicholls". Fantasticfiction.co.uk. Retrieved 21 February 2009.
- Pratchett, Terry (2009). Unseen Academicals. Doubleday. p. 389. ISBN: 0385609345 .
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- "'Orc' (from Orcus) is another term for an ogre or ogre-like creature. Being useful fodder for the ranks of bad guys, monsters similar to Tolkien's orcs are also in both games." Gygax, Gary (March 1985). "On the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D games". The Dragon (95). pp. 12–13.
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