Jul 9 2013 10:00am

The Orc Renaissance: Race, Tolerance and Post-9/11 Western Fantasy

Lord of the Rings Orc Peter Jackson

Orcs: grim, slimy, generally bald. They stink, they lurk. In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, they are harbingers of evil, the dull-minded minions who carry out Sauron and Saruman’s infamous plans. Derived—according to Wikipedia, at any rate—from Orcus, the demonic-looking Roman god of death, and the subsequent Old English cognate orcneas, a fae race condemned by God, the orc is the embodiment of all that is emphatically bad in the black-and-white world Tolkien created, the world from which the bulk of modern, western fantasy descends.

Tolkien did not write in a vacuum. Caught up in a generation of global war that profoundly and permanently altered British culture, he saw the world in terms Samuel Huntington might have recognized: the “clash of civilizations” in which East and West are pitted against one another. It is not a coincidence that Tolkien locates evil in Middle Earth in the East and South, or that the Haradrim mercenaries recruited by Saruman are readily identifiable as North African Arabs. Nor is it a coincidence that the dividing line between good and evil, the river Isen, is a homonym of the common German surname Eisen, and is given the same meaning (“iron”). A midcentury English reader might have even read orc and heard turk, drawing upon an indelible cultural memory of a time when the Ottoman-dominated east was militarized, technologically superior and very threatening, a memory that resurfaced when the Ottoman Empire, now in its death throes, sided with the Germans in World War I. Tolkien’s real life enemies, the ones he faced on the battlefield, were transposed into the pages of his work.

Today, however, globalization through commerce and technology has complicated our view of the world. The Other in the east is no longer so strange: we befriend them on Facebook and watch their revolutions unfold on Twitter. Most of us have come to understand that world politics are rarely as simple or as satisfying as good versus evil. We know now that purchasing a cheap shirt from a Walmart in Topeka has a profound impact on factory workers in Bangladesh; the information economy has made the bleed between East and West unavoidably apparent. The era of tidy political compartmentalization is over, and it shows not only in the way we interact, but in the fantasies we build for ourselves. The orc—the Other—is slowly but surely changing.

World of Warcraft, Orc I was a late but ardent convert to video gaming. A dear Pakistani friend, whose wooly beard and skullcap make him the sort of person who gets special attention at airports, turned me on to World of Warcraft, which I originally tried out solely so I could mock the cult MMORPG in a comics-and-geek-culture column I was writing at the time. But any mockery died on my lips after ten minutes in-game, when, like a bath salt zombie, I was overcome by a sudden, irresistible hunger for more. Four years and ninety levels later, when I haven’t hit my daily word count, I log on to my Battle.net account and turn stuff into sheep. It makes me feel as though I’ve accomplished something. (Elodiee of Staghelm. Ally mage. Feel free to say hi next time you’re online.)

As an author and student of the culture wars, one of the things I initially found most striking about Warcraft was its earnest attempt to give the “bad guy” races of western fantasy a fair airing. Trolls, goblins, minotaurs and the undead are endowed with intricate, distinct histories; orcs, default leaders of the baddie alliance (known as the Horde) are transformed from Tolkien’s slobbering villains into a noble if toothy race of warriors and shamans. For several expansions, the Horde was ruled by the ultimate tragic hero: Thrall, a modestly good-looking, Conan-the-Barbarian-haired orc enslaved by a faction of human racial purists and cruelly separated from his human paramour as a youth. He was the mournful, formidable king-in-waiting; a sort of cartoon Aragorn. Thrall’s story was at the core of all end-game content: he was the one who, time and again, saved the eternally threatened world of Azeroth from Certain Destruction. When Thrall was retired at the end of the last expansion, I left the Horde. It just wasn’t the same without the guy.

Elder Scrolls, Orc As I delved deeper, I was surprised to discover that Warcraft is not the only fantasy vehicle on a mission to rehabilitate orcs: Bethesda Softworks’ ongoing video game series, The Elder Scrolls, features orcs as protagonists, again building off the notion of the orc as a proud, gruff, nomadic warrior. Like Warcraft, Elder Scrolls gave the orcs a literal facelift: rather than the pallid, hunched specters of Tolkien lore, these orcs are upright, a good deal hairier, and much more identifiably humanoid. (The result is a sort of exceedingly ugly elf with tusks.) Shadowrun, a popular tabletop RPG and spinoff book series, also has orc-as-good-guy character builds. Then there is The Last Ringbearer, Kirill Eskov’s subversive, sociologically fascinating retelling of The Lord of the Rings from the point of view of an orc protagonist.

Even the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings itself, directed by Peter Jackson, were careful to take into account the way the realities of the 21st century have impacted Tolkien’s original metaphors. In the director’s cut of The Two Towers, there is a short but astonishing scene which does not occur in the original novel: Faramir stands over the body of a slain Harad mercenary and gives what amounts to a eulogy, wondering aloud what forces caused the man to leave his native land and fight in a war on the other side of the world, and whether he would not rather be safe at home. It is a poignant pause that would have had little meaning before 9/11, the shockwaves of which still reverberate through the global conversation about race, religion and armed conflict.

However, re-imagining “evil” fantasy races is not without sociological peril. World of Warcraft in particular is guilty of remaking the bad guys into noble savages, a racially freighted trope that is damaging in its own right. Trolls speak in Afro-Caribbean accents, joke about voodoo and cannibalism, and decorate their primitive-looking villages with skulls; minotaurs (known in-game as Tauren) live in pseudo-Native American camps complete with teepees, totem poles, and fatuous spiritualism. In The Elder Scrolls, orcs are nomadic polygamists who worship a violent god. In some sense, the bad guys have graduated from being strange, pale, and evil to being recognizable, brown, and inferior. Whether that is truly a step up is open to debate.

There’s no denying that as western fantasy evolves, so too has its message: orcs and their allies are no longer simply The Other. They are not as evil as they are misunderstood, not as ugly as they are different. The world—the one in which we live, and the one in which we play—has changed. Western fantasy has, in many ways, advanced beyond western politics when it comes to healing the post-9/11 rift between civilizations: we get the sense, as the imagined histories of Azeroth and Tamriel and fanfic Middle Earth unfold, that if we do not all pull together, we will collectively descend into a hell of ecological meltdown and social chaos. It’s very telling that today’s monster du jour is not the orc, but the zombie: a bewildering, mindless reflection of an ordinary human being. The threat to the world has gone from abstract to urgent: one gets the sense, in zombie films and TV shows, that there are simply too many of us, and that one day the earth will try—violently—to correct this imbalance. When that happens, our old enemies will seem benign. We need the orcs. We need the collective wisdom of every race and culture if we are to survive. That need is at the crux of the burgeoning fantasy renaissance, in which necessity makes allies of us all.

G. Willow Wilson is the author of the novel Alif the Unseen, a New York Times Notable Book and Locus Award finalist. Her comics and graphic novels include the Eisner Award-nominated series Air and Mystic: The Tenth Apprentice. She lives in Seattle.

1. AgingComputer
Doesn't appear in the original novel? That scene is lifted from Sam's POV in The Two Towers, when a dead Haradrim soldier lands in front of him and he wonders who he was and whether he really was truly evil.
2. a1ay
In the director’s cut of The Two Towers, there is a short but astonishing scene which does not occur in the original novel: Faramir stands over the body of a slain Harad mercenary and gives what amounts to a eulogy, wondering aloud what forces caused the man to leave his native land and fight in a war on the other side of the world, and whether he would not rather be safe at home.

The scene actually is in the original novel, except that it's an internal monologue by Sam rather than a speech by Faramir.

"It was Sam's first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man's name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace-all in a flash of thought which was quickly driven from his mind."

It is a poignant pause that would have had little meaning before 9/11

...because that Changed Everything, right? Good lord.

he saw the world in terms Samuel Huntington might have recognized: the“clash of civilizations” in which East and West are pitted against one another. It is not a coincidence that Tolkien locates evil in Middle Earth in the East and South,

Or, maybe, not. He also locates evil in the north-west (Angband) and bang in the middle (Mirkwood/Dol Guldur) and a bit north-east (Smaug in the Lonely Mountain) and in the middle west (Isengard) and in the north (Utumno).

Nor is it a coincidence that the dividing line between good and evil, the river Isen

The what now? Dude, seriously, look at a map. The Isen runs from Isengard due west to the sea. It's not the dividing line between anything very much. The big dividing river is Anduin.
3. Pjpw
Check out Unseen Academicals, and Snuff by Terry Pratchett. Humanising Orcs plays a major role in both books.
4. a1ay
The idea that before 9/11 no one in Britain would ever have thought about a sympathetic Other enemy is particularly ignorant. What about Saladin, for pete's sake? The guy was being held up as the epitome of a chivalrous non-Christian opponent in the twelfth century!

Tolkien’s real life enemies, the ones he faced on the battlefield, were transposed into the pages of his work.

Except that Tolkien never fought against the Turks. He fought on the Western Front, against the Germans, at the Somme.

Not to mention all this manure about Tolkien writing a black-and-white, good versus evil world, which I am just going to dismiss as trolling.
Bridget McGovern
6. BMcGovern
@a1ay: Please don't be rude. If you have points to make, be civil, and keep withing the bounds of our Moderation Policy. Name-calling and abuse won't be tolerated.
7. C Oppenheimer
Sorry to pick nits but didn't the Haradrim fight in the east, around Mordor, while it was the Dunlendings who were recruited by Saruman?
Plus, I roleplayed a lawful good half-orc in the late '70s. I was in favor of nurture over nature.
Scott Oden
8. Orcwriter
This is a really excellent article! If anything, writers, game designers, and film-makers since Tolkien have made Orcs more bestial than JRRT may have intended. This is how he described Orcs in his letters:

"...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." -- JRR Tolkien on Orcs (Letter 210).

The nearest representation to this I've been ale to find comes from -- oddly enough -- the 2011 Conan movie starring Jason Momoa. Compare this description with a picture of Nathan Jones as "Akhun" and you'll see what I mean.
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
My thoughts on orcs are no secret, so it is always awesome to see that I'm not alone in the circles my mind is pacing...
10. i can't think of an alias
Although Tolkien was clearly writing before "Most of us have come to understand that world politics are rarely as simple or as satisfying as good versus evil.", the author doesn't understand the nuances of Tolkien's writing (not to mention the facts, as pointed out by others above).

Tolkien was writing a modern-day myth of good vs. evil. Therefore Good (Gandalf) and Evil (Sauron) are personified. Evil warps the natural world (therefore industrialization is evil). The Orcs were MADE, they are not natural. Melkor, Sauron and Saruman all had a hand in creating Orcs. Orcs are to be pitied, not hated.

The enemy humans have been misled by Saruman and Sauron. That is the ultimate evil of the Ring, it allows someone to exert their will over others. Sauron is evil, the Haradrim are not.

Gollum, who is the most corrupted by the Ring (and is clearly not a black/white charactorization), is spared by Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo out of pity. Ultimately it is Gollum (albeit accidently) who destroys the Ring and Good (sparing Gollum) is rewarded.

There is far more in LOTR than I can ever cite in this comment that could be used to support the depth of Tolkien's work. Unfortunately, the author of this essay wanted to see himself as more "advanced" than Tolkien. People see in art what they want to see.

Personally, I like the fact that more recent fantasy authors have moved beyond the good vs evil trope. The Tolkien copy-cats (you know who you are) were never as talented as the master.

I don't doubt that most of the world is far more tolerant now than in the '50's when LOTR was published. However, it is not fair for someone to judge an author when it is clear he has barely read the book.
11. gadget
This has got to be the most banal and shallow interpretation of Tolkien's works I've come across in quite some time, and that's saying something! In consequence, everything else the author has to say is hard to take seriously. Yes, orcs have been promoted from vile minions of evil to Klingons to noble savages. There is probably a thoughtful essay in that observation on our society, views and culture, but this is not it.
Kit Case
12. wiredog
the Haradrim mercenaries recruited by Saruman

They were recruited by Sauron.
13. Eugene R.
I would say that the move from the status of "Target - Shoot me!" to post-modern stereotype is a step up. Not a *big* step up, but upwards nonetheless.

I believe that, as our gaming evolves, we appreciate having a wider range of potential interactions with friends and foes. In a long-ago AD&D game, set in a Romanized Britain and incorporating The Keep on the Borderlands, I had members of a military mission to the Borderlands debating that defeated goblin tribes should be offered a chance to become foederati (allied tribes) to the Emperor, no different than Saxons (equally smelly and barbaric). And religious members of the party were writing to Rome to see if goblins had souls and could be converted. One addition to the party was a half-orc PC, whom we decided would become a missionary (and later, a martyr) to his orcish relatives.
14. HouseLannister
Easterlings: dark, swarthy and cruel.

Southrons: black-skinned, cruel and evil (and elephant-riding!).

Orcs: slant-eyed, flat-nosed, JRR himself called them "mongoloid."

I know folks get defensive about JRR but come on people. It's right there. I love LoTR too but like the article says it was a product of its time. JRR said on several occasions that it was meant as homage to the ethnic Saxon mythology that was wiped out by the Norman invasion of Britain. Ie it is very specifically fantasy for a specific group of white people. Heck, Peter Jackson famously turned away an Indian dwarf who auditioned for one of the hobbit parts, because she didn't have the right "look." The British National Party uses LoTR as propaganda (rise, Men of the West!), tho to be fair Tolkien would proabbly have been horrified by that.

Nothing wrong with culturally white mythology, until ppl start wanting to pretend it is universal and above criticism.
15. Herb644
The Malthusian silliness at the end is the cherry on top of a very sad sundae.
16. Colin R
Very brave to post something like this when you're going to have people trying their hardest to shut down the discussion.

@10: It's true that Tolkien establishes that the corrupted like Gollum, and perhaps even orcs, are to be pitied. But that is far from an egalitarian statement--a figured who is to be pitied is by definition someone who is lesser than the the figure who has pity. The purpose of pity and mercy is to ennoble the heroes who possess those traits (Frodo, Aragon, Gandalf), not to elicit empathy with Gollum or orcs. Whatever the origin of orcs are, the way they are depicted leaves nothing to sympathize with--they represent everything wicked.

As you said, orcs are unnaturally made. But there is no indication that the corrupted people can be redeemed--certainly there is no evidence of redeeming traits among the orcs. Gollum's redeeming traits lie solely in what remain of hobbitish origins--hobbits representing the salt of the earth Englishness that Tolkein prizes. In the end he is redeemed by his actions, but he is not saved--it's the fiery pit for him. Frodo spares him so that he can fulfill his duty in dying for Middle-Earth. Good for everyone else, decidedly not great for Gollum.

All of that makes a certain amount of sense within Tolkien's universe. But as people have sort of pointed out, the LOTR universe is not completely divided from our own. Geography aside, culturally and for the most part racially, the Heroes of Middle-Earth are clearly in the tradition of German and Scandanavian mythology. Again, fair enough, but nobility and race clearly are entwined in Middle-Earth--the less mankind has in common with tall, fair-skinned elves, the less noble and kingly its people become. Tolkien clearly intends for the swarthy, sallow-skinned, or slant-eyed people that show up to be figures of revulsion.

I have more to say about orcs in modern fantasy but this post is already long. Maybe later.
Mordicai Knode
17. mordicai
While we are talking about Tolkien, I'd like to bring up quotes like:
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).
The Good Professor talks about this more (I read about it in Morgoth's Ring, I think, but I don't have it in front of me) but the fact remains that even he was dubious about their "pure evil" nature.

Can orcs be redeemed? I say yes. By us.
18. Colin R
I'd be interested in knowing more about the context of that quote, mordicai. Still, it's hardly something in much evidence in the books--the orcs are there as impediments, and there's no evidence that they will be beating their swords into ploughshares now that they're beaten. What I think is more likely is that the ones who survive will either disappear or will become human (as it is implied hobbits, dwarfs, and elves have had to do.)

What I mean is that there is no 'orcish' point of view that can survive. Nothing about orcishness is good, and to be redeemed is essentially to stop being an orc, in culture and mindset if not in body. Even dwarves, who are generally pretty greedy and curmudgeonly in Tolkien's books, are accepted as having a dwarvish culture and perspective that is both different and at least kind of valid from that of elves and men (although even they would be better off, it is implied, if they were more like elves). It's okay to be a dwarf, but it doesn't seem like that's the case for orcs.
Mordicai Knode
19. mordicai
18. Colin R

I guess my major counter-argument to that is-- as much as I like Tolkien (which is to say, more than I like almost anything else) I don't think he's the...be-all-end-all. Outside of the discussion of orcs in Tolkien there is a bigger conversation, about orcs in fantasy, orcs in fiction. Which is what I think is more important. I mostly bring up the Tolkien quotes to show that even he was ultimately ambivilent about their origins & motives, especially where it clashed with issues of theology & morality.
20. HWP
"...there is a short but astonishing scene which does not occur in the original novel: Faramir stands over the body of a slain Harad mercenary and gives what amounts to a eulogy, wondering aloud what forces caused the man to leave his native land and fight in a war on the other side of the world, and whether he would not rather be safe at home."

But that does come directly from the novel, except that it comes from Sam. I dislike the suggestion being made here - that of course Tolkien would be simply incapable of any real nuance or wisdom in his work, and that the above passage could only be written by a modern, enlightened individual, raised in a progressive environment.
Tolkien wasn't some kind of war-glorifying propagandist - throughout LOTR there is a clear unease with celebrating violent warfare, and a kind of respectful rejection of older forms of heroism that Tolkien would have been familiar with through his reading - so you have Faramir explaining that - “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend," and the real heroes of the story are two painfully ordinary country gentlemen who end up being shattered by their experience - this is quite a bit different from the confident and war-like heroes of Arthurian, Norse and Germanic legend, and the glorification of martial prowess.
Interestingly, Tolkien also thought the orcs problematic - but from a theological viewpoint. He didn't like the implication that you could have a ration creature incapable of free will and essentially forced to do evil. It clashed painfully with his Catholicism, and I don't think he ever resolved the issue.
21. mutantalbinocrocodile
@17, thanks for bringing Morgoth's Ring to the table. Those who haven't read it, please do so. Do so before reading the Letters. Then please come back and any discussion of cosmology and ethics in Tolkien can have a firmer basis in Tolkien's own original philosophy (and I do rank many of the essays in Morgoth's Ring to be legitimate if very out-of-fashion contributions to twentieth century philosophy).

Just a snarky comment on prejudice, however. . .although I respectfully disagree with some of the author's points, it's intriguing that nearly all commenters who have used pronouns either have assumed default male, or haven't done Ms. Wilson the courtesy of actually looking at her name, publication and credentials, which clearly indicate her gender.
Mordicai Knode
23. mordicai
21. mutantalbinocrocodile

Yeah, after Book of Lost Tales 1 & 2 I think it is far & away the best piece of...extended apochrypha (?) of Tolkien's Middle-Earth work. Well, Unfinished Tales probably goes in there somewhere.
Mordicai Knode
24. mordicai
18. Colin R

Thinking about this a little further, I would say that the real problem with your argument of orcishness as a trait...is that orcs in Tolkien carry OTHER traits beyond reckless misuse of natural resources, rapacious technological advances regardless of impact, brutality, & other such elements. They ALSO carry the traits that are problematic: things like slanted eyes & swarthy skin.
Cain Latrani
26. CainS.Latrani
I'm actually glad to see this piece. Not only is it well written and thoughtful, but it reflects some things I've been thinking on for a while now.

Like how much I can't stand stereotypes. Especially in fantasy fiction. You know what I mean. All Dwarves appear to be Scottish somehow, all Elves are graceful and aloof. That sort of thing.

In my own work, I've been redefining as many fantasy races as I possibly can. Elves that are snarky, dangerous, not all all aloof, or just plain crazy. Dwarves that don't have Scottish sounding accents, work the forge, or behave in any way that is consdered Dwarven. (Like calling a thong tradtional Dwarven swimwear.) Ogres that are noble, heroic and kind. Werewolves that are gallant and so on.

To me, the bane of fantasy has always been the stereotypes. Everyone has a neat little box they fit into. I've never liked it. Even as far back as high school, I played a D&D Elf that was a very nihilistic, incredibly power wizard, with a bad habit of flipping out and using a great sword to go on rampages. It was great, because it was different.

I'm glad to see others beginning to really take seriously the idea of redefining the fantasy monsters. I'd say we're still a ways off from anyone taking seriously my idea for a minotaur with Woody Allen's persona, but still, at least we're on the road.

Of course, I'm the same guy who writes about talking, intelligent zombies, so, that should tell you where I am on this sort of thing.
27. R.J. Robledo
@HWR and @Colin R : Thank you! While I appreciate G. Willow Wilson's attempts to tie changing attitudes of tolerance to our investment in well-known fantasies, I think some details were lost her effort.

She's certainly not alone --we all do it!-- and it's better to be more concerned with actual human relations than the reputation of a fantasy epic. That said, the inference that Peter Jackson's adaption was more knowing with it's "scene that does not occur in the original novel" struck me (as well as many others here), and remembering its place in the book reminded me why I loved the books so much. Were they perfect? No --but neither is Dostoyevsky, or Hemingway, or Golding. Like those three, Tolkien still was very, very good, especially when viewed in the context of the time.
Alan Brown
28. AlanBrown
I chuckle at the ideas expressed by so many folks that everyone these days is so much wiser and more enlightened than they were back in the old days of primitive predjudice. It seems that some of the old ideas of social Darwinism, where mankind is constantly evolving for the better, are still quite strong under the surface.
I felt that same sense of hubris in my younger days. But with the perspective of age, I can now say that not all change is progress. Some things change for the better, while other things change for the worse. I am much less certain that folks are smarter and better than they were in days gone by. While we dehumanized and demonized the enemy in wars gone by, today I see too many examples that we are doing the same thing all over again.
I read a book by Ben Bova on writing, where he suggested that you should not write about good guys and bad guys, but instead about protagonists and antagonists. Characters who, regardless of which side they are on, think that they are doing the right thing. That advice stuck with me. While there is good and evil in the world, and there are right causes and wrong causes, I think portraying everything as a Manichaeistic struggle between dark and light oversimplifies things.
I think it is postive that in their fiction and their games, people are showing that every nation and every culture is made up of good people and bad people.
Bill Stusser
29. billiam
One thing I wanted to point out is that the Horde are not the 'bad guys' in WoW. The orcs (and trolls, taurens, etc) are not evil. Neither faction (Horde or Alliance) is good or evil, they are just, well, different factions. Having said that, friends don't let friends play Alliance!

As someone who has played a troll hunter since the vanilla days of WoW, I love the trolls' Caribbean accent, it is great for RPing. When I am playing I always talk (or type if not using emotes) in character, even in whispers 'I be talkin like dis, mon'.

And I too miss Thrall as Warchief of the Horde, Garrosh is an asswipe that needs to die a horrific death. Vol'Jin for Warchief!

For de Horde, mon!
30. Colin R
I think Tolkien was a genuinely a decent soul, and his discomfort with what he had created in orcs reflect that. And I still think that Gandalf's admonishment to Frodo on why he should not be so quick to wish death on Gollum is one of the most powerfully humane in literature.

I'm just addressing what is in the text of what was published though, regarding peoples' nature. Elves are explicitly better than other creatures--partly because many of them were exposed to Valinor, but mostly because they were just created that way. Dwarves were blessed in their own way, but in a definitely lesser way than elves and men--that's reflected in the way most dwarves are depicted, as greedy, curmudgeonly, and even a bit hapless. Gimli is the exception that proves the rule. Given that the goodness of beings is endowed by their creation (and their creator), it stands to reason that the orcs, perversions and inversions of elves, are similarly corrupt due to the nature of their creation.

I apologize for spending so much time on Tolkien--his work is dense and deserves the discussion though! And I think it's proper that most later fantasy has tried to move away from that notion of innate evil. It bothered Tolkien for a reason, and it should bother us too.
31. Teka Lynn
@25: Oooh, Daedric armor! Very snazzy.
32. KaosNoKamisama
It is interesting hat there is a talk about orkish culture and if it is or not a valid culture/point of view. Tolkien stated clearly many times that his orcs are corrupted life forms subjugated by fear to power. They are not intrinsecally evil, like said before, but they are drawn to evil since they tend to follow power, merciless power. Insofar they can't really have a culture of their own, since they aren't permitted such thing. Corrupted by Morgoth, a Vala, for his own purposes, enlaved and afterwards passed over to Sauron, their "culture" is deeply individualistic and has to do with survival and power, not with creation or anything generally considered positive. And this has nothing to do with your fist-world people's obsession with political correctness and such stuff, it has to do with looking into a fictional universe and recognizing the rules that apply there. I concur that many aspects of Tolkiens work are permeated by his times and worlview, but I also have to be emphatic to draw the atention back to the fictional nature of hi world, especially when speaking about a completely fictional species. It is ultimately the author who decides what his characters are and what they aren't. In the case of Tolkien's orcs, this means to aknowledge that they are subaltern people, constantly subjugated to the will of the powerfull and living their everyday lives in an environment of constant violence. Just look at the oh-so-old issue about orcs life cycle. If they are, as sugested, corrupted elves, it could mean that orcs are "immortal" too, giving them in theory enough time to build up a pretty complex society. Why does this not happen? My guess is that individuals in a permanent state of fear and hate, subjugation and subalternity, just end up (if they survive long enough) living in a state of perpetual nihilism. Violence is the only thing left to them afer their forefathers where pretty much created out of madness, torture and the sitematic stipping off of anything that could define them as intelectual/spitirual/free beings. A good paralel are actually torture victims, depressed people or anyone who's painful existence makes them loose the will for action beyond the command of fear.

So... there "is" a orkish culture in Tolkien's world, but it is more of an "anti-culture", a collective existence with no discourse or ideology, just a staying together to increase each individual's survival rate; but that's not culture. Maybe orcs led by orcs could eventually develop a culture, but it would still be a culture of subalternity and violence, for fear is the main drive for these tortured beings.

It is easy in this context to think of the heores as the ones with the power to redeem the corrupted orcs, but there is no redemption possible for the trauma is far to great. I mean... come on, if you can traumatize a species as deep as to change them into something completely opposite for hundreds of generations, you are speaking about powerful stuff. The connection between the spiritual and phisical existence of elves if more ocmplex, immediate and powerful than in human according to Tolkien. If elves can die of sadness, of a broken heart or a tired soul, imagine what breaking their souls beyond their limmit can do tho their boidies. It is like the spiritual equivalent of genetic engeneering! So, maybe for orcs redemption comes not from the nobleness and mercy of the heroes, but of their own possibility to escape life itself through death and separating their souls from their bodies.

The fact that Tolkien chosed to depict orcs as "mongoloid" of course is the link always used to label them as a racial representation, but as pointed out before, it is important to understand that the form orcs where twisted into was probably chosen to be as opposite as possible to their original form. So, if elves are tall, fair and whatever, orcs had to become the contrary in the most mocking nature possible. Orcs shouldn't be thought as ulgly, but as anti-elvish in he first place. Just like Morgoth made trolls of stone to mock the wooden and life-bound Ents, he "made" the orcs as opposite as possible to elves.

Well... the topic is very interesting and I could write for ever, but people have to sleep to.

Keep on the good exchange of ideas people!
33. Colin R
If approached from the angle of "orcs are subjugated by Morgoth and cannot have their own culture," that's a pretty bleak outlook for them ever having one--Morgoth is as defeated and powerless as he will ever be, and yet still seems to be oppressing them.

I am sort of curious about when orcs started being given moral agency though. The most notable uses of orcs after Tolkien, that I'm aware of, are D&D and Warhammer. Both basically assume that orcs are also servants of dark powers, although not nearly as thoughtfully as Tolkien. Warhammer in particular never seems to take it very seriously, as far as I can tell--though I'm not that familiar with Warhammer.

So it seems like Shadowrun and Earthdawn are probably among the first, and in those settings Orks are acknowledged as human beings--so of course they have the same moral agency as any person.
34. Tim_Eagon
33. Colin R.

The Eberron D&D setting casts orcs in a fairly positive light; well, at least as positive as the other races.
Andrew Knighton
35. gibbondemon
Good article. While the specific examples being debated are interesting, particularly around Tolkien's work, I don't think they undermine the broad thrust of the argument, that the way orcs are portrayed has shifted.

I'm not sure it's such a recent phenomenon. I've seen people playing at subverting the orc stereotype in the creation of roleplay games for a couple of decades, and in British live roleplay there's a long tradition of orcs as humorous uncouth barbarians rather than necessarily villains. But the fact that this is now the norm in such high profile places as WoW may mean that orcs can no longer just be used as short-hand for villains. Whether that's a good or bad thing depends on how you want to use them.
Birgit F
36. birgit
the common German surname Eisen

I'm German and I never heard Eisen as a name.

In Germany there is a series of novels by different authors focusing on different fantasy races that has orcs, trolls and dragons besides more traditional hero races like elves and dwarves.
Stephen Dunscombe
37. cythraul
Nor is it a coincidence that the dividing line between good and evil, the river Isen, is a homonym of the common German surname Eisen, and is given the same meaning (“iron”).

Tolkien was a philologist - a language geek. He created Middle-earth as a setting for the conlangs he'd already started. He never did anything shallow or thoughtless with language, and so it's hard to make a shallow reading of his use of language without ending up with egg on your face.

"Isen" is the Old English word for "iron". Tolkien used Old English as a stand-in for the speech of Rohan. Humans aligned with the heroes. There are Old English names all over that area of the map, and all over that area of the setting. Theoden (folk-king), Eowyn (warhorse-joy), Grima (mask, visor), etc.

Hence "Isengard" - "Iron Enclosure". The "-gard" is the same suffix as in the more familiar "Midgard" and "Asgard". It's the root of the modern English "yard".
Mordicai Knode
39. mordicai
31. Teka Lynn

Handcrafted by yours truly at level 100, with a super good blacksmithing potion & gauntlets, a ring & an amulet of smithin boosting. Then enchanted (again, my my character) with two enchantments; stats & skill bosts. Mauga gro-Dovah is not an orc to be trifled with, she'll mace your head in!
40. Colin R
@Tim-Eagon: Yeah I guess I should have clarified that I meant D&D's portrayal of orcs in the 70s and 80s. By the 90s the game clearly had sort of a philosophical identity crisis that is still resolving itself, but views on orcs are definitely more nuanced now.

Now that I think of it though, the use of the half-orc in RPGs probably has something to do with the transition. Tolkien introduced the notion of the half-orc but wasn't very keen to explore it; decades of half-orc characters have to have put to rest the idea that orcish blood is evil by nature though. Most players are going to treat their half-orc character as being as rational and full of agency as any other character they played.

I rather like the Elder Scrolls depictions of orcs. Of all the races really--they are mostly recognizable (high elves are haughty and magical, dark elves are shifty and magical, orcs are strong and tribal) but presented with nuanced cultures and religions that make sense while still being fantastic. Yeah, TES orcs worship a dark and bloody god. But the high elves are currently run by genocidal fundamentalist eugenicists, and wood elves are cannibals--and all of these traits tie into religions and cultures that have a mix of truth and creative interpretation involved. Yes, the spiritual entities of Tamriel exist, but they are generally a pretty unreliable bunch, and most of the history written down in Tamriel is also unreliable, subject to revision and propaganda.

Anyway, what I mean to say is the 'savagery' of the orcs in Tamriel is entirely superficial; they are not any more violent than people of other races. They're just not as good at selling their story and their mythology to others.
Mordicai Knode
41. mordicai
40. Colin R

I think that players who play a half-orc or a tiefling & are confronted with the casual racism of your generic fantasy town have an actual moment where they can check their "invisible backpack" & actually empathize with real world issues that might be outside their personal experience. Maybe I'm a hopeless optimist though. As for Skyrim, hanging out with Stormcloaks will do the same thing. Those racist jerks.
42. Taran Wanderer
Dropping in to point out that the main characters of The Last Ringbearer are humans, as are all "orcs" in the book. I am still confused why this book is held up as a subversive masterpiece--it has a whole mess of problems all of its own, including an *extremely* offensive portrayal of (thinly-veiled) Islam and arguments for Russian isolationism. I would dare say that if The Last Ringbearer is a "cure" for The Lord of the Rings, the cure is worse than the disease.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
43. Lisamarie
@26 - In my D&D campaign in college (about 10 years ago), I played a Dwarven ranger/healer. It was fun :)

I definitely think this is a useful discussion to have , and I am all for more nuanced, and less stereotypical portrayals of race in fantasy. It's just more interesting that way.

That said, everybody else has already made the points I would want to make regarding Tolkien and the oversimplification of his work in this piece (thanks to those who pointed out Faramir's scene IS in the book, as well as bringing up some of his other great quotes). There are definitely some squirm-worthy things in his writings (the 'sallow, squint eyed' Southrons, the general implication that people of Numenorean blood are just better, morally, than other men, and of course the sticky issue of the orcs that he himself struggled with) but I definitely think he was above a black and white viewing of the world.
Alana Abbott
44. alanajoli
I was surprised not to see tabletop gaming mentioned in the article, so I'm glad to see it fairly frequently in the comments. (Also glad that Colin R. pointed out in @40 that D&D of the 90s was addressing this issue differently than previous incarnations -- the whole good members of evil races and half-orcs as heroes certainly goes back to the beginning of my gaming days, so it was present in 2nd Edition, but possibly not before.)

Thanks also to mutantalbinocrocodile for pointing out Ms. Wilson's gender. I'd missed that myself back when Alif the Unseen first came out and can think of no excuse. Looking her up has, however, made me wonder why I've not read more of her work. Look at the comics! Shiny new reads to add to my TBR pile...

Speaking of comics, someone I think has been addressing this "evil races in gaming can be heroes" issue very well is Tarol Hunt of Goblins. http://www.goblinscomic.org/ @mordicai, if you've not been reading it and this is a particular area of interest for you, you should definitely check it out.
Mordicai Knode
45. mordicai
44. alanajoli

I just opened a new tab; I'll take a look! Thanks!
Joseph Newton
47. crzydroid
I think it's very interesting to note that we immediately treat the orcs in Tolkien and orcs/orks in other fantasy to be attempting to define the same race of creature. Hence, the discussion is about the modern portrayal of orcs as being more nuanced as older portrayals, but why do these have to be the same creature? If you are generalizing and saying portrayals of "other" races in literature, then there can be a point...but the discussion chooses "orc" as that "other" creature as though this were a manifest creature whose name and (intended) likeness are unique.

For example, what is a vampire? If one were to compare the vampires of Twilight and the vampires of Dracula, there would seem to be a few inconsistencies in the definition. There is not only the similarity of the name, but the undead aspects and the fact that they drink the blood of the living. It is clear that these are intended to be the same creature. But Dracula's vampires do not seem to sparkle, and I doubt that Twilight's vampires would be affected by the Holy Eucharist. To some extent, the differences are ok...while these are intended to be the same creature, there is no intended continuity (as far as I'm aware) between the two narratives.

It's just very interesting to me that we would have these notions in fantasy of creatures intending to be the same throughout varying stories that share no continuity, when neither orc nor vampire are real (or elves or what have you). One would not expect a Klingon to show up on Doctor Who or Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica. These shows share no continuity with Star Trek. Yet, if a Klingon did show up here, what would it be? Could the Klingon be defined entirely differently? Would we then even call them the same creature? Would they be intended to be the same? Or would the simple be some other creature or race that shares the same name and perhaps a few other similarities?

We're still left with the question of "What is an orc?" or "What is a vampire?". Are the orcs in Tolkien really the same orcs in WoW? Isn't ok that they can be depicted totally differently? Why treat it as though the conception/presentation of the orc has changed through time? Could these just be different creatures with the same name and similar physical characteristics? Can't we treat this as a completely new race that has other cultural aspects to it? Clearly when orcs were created for WoW (or should I say the original Warcraft?), someone had notions of other orcs in mind (perhaps Tolkien's). It's just interesting to me though that these are treated as the same thing even though there is no shared continuity.
Mordicai Knode
48. mordicai
47. crzydroid

For me, that IS the point; that the orc is a flexible category of "Other." I'm not looking so much at their species-- though I do, as I've said elsewhere, the "orc" niche in my RPG campaign is filled by Neanderthals-- but at their literary significance, as humanoid shiboleths for unpopular ethnicities. We're getting some post-colonial theory up in here! Just like saying vampires are about...well...about sex. You get your Dracula-- oh no, premarital sex!-- & your Interview With the Vampire-- oh no, gay sex!-- & your Twilight-- oh no, abstinance!-- & while powers, traits & weaknesses don't overlap, they signify the same thing. The Venn diagrams overlap & the section where they all meet is named "sex." With orcs, it is often the same way, but that intersection is...well, race.
D. Bell
49. SchuylerH
@48: I don't think anyone has yet brought up TVTropes "Our Orcs Are Different", so I will.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
50. Lisamarie
Not to discount the more intelligent conversation going on here but: "Dracula's vampires do not seem to sparkle, and I doubt that Twilight's vampires would be affected by the Holy Eucharist" may be the best thing I've read all day.
51. I can't think of an alias
I think it is a testiment to Tolkien that his work has prompted so much debate. Since he was expressly writing an Anglo-Saxon mythology, he has fallen into the European=good, Non-European=bad fault of his day. Although this is a valid criticism, it shouldn't be used as a dismissal of his work as a whole.

For instance, his Elves and Numenorans are far from infallable. In fact, their history is rife with mistakes, injustice and hubris. They may have benefitted from their association with the Valar, but they remain flawed.

In addition, one of the strengths of fantasy is the ability to create creatures that are different from humans in more than just appearance. Tolkien's orcs are not human and serve as a moral warning for unnatural creations (think about the possibilities in genetic manipulation that were unthinkable in Tolkien's day).

The current trend that the author is highlighting just morphs Orcs into humans of a different appearance. That may ease the minds of some of the more politically correct among us, but it doesn't serve the same purpose as Tolkien intended. This makes Orcs of today essentially irrelevant.
52. I can't think of an alias
I think it is a testiment to Tolkien that his work has prompted so much debate. Since he was expressly writing an Anglo-Saxon mythology, he has fallen into the European=good, Non-European=bad fault of his day. Although this is a valid criticism, it shouldn't be used as a dismissal of his work as a whole.

For instance, his Elves and Numenorans are far from infallable. In fact, their history is rife with mistakes, injustice and hubris. They may have benefitted from their association with the Valar, but they remain flawed.

In addition, one of the strengths of fantasy is the ability to create creatures that are different from humans in more than just appearance. Tolkien's orcs are not human and serve as a moral warning for unnatural creations (think about the possibilities in genetic manipulation that were unthinkable in Tolkien's day).

The current trend that the author is highlighting just morphs Orcs into humans of a different appearance. That may ease the minds of some of the more politically correct among us, but it doesn't serve the same purpose as Tolkien intended. This makes Orcs of today essentially irrelevant.
G Willow Wilson
53. G_Willow_Wilson
Author here. Thanks to those of you who pointed out the Faramir/Sam gaff...watching the film, I thought "I'm certain Faramir never says that in the book," which is quite true, but I'd forgotten that Sam says (or rather thinks) something similar.

Bad author.

I love Tolkien. Without his influence, there might not be much of a fantasy genre to talk about. My father began reading me The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was three years old (it took a couple of years to get through the whole thing) and growing up we listened to the BBC radio adaptation (with Ian Holm as Frodo) around Christmastime every year. It's entirely possible to love a certain artist or body of work and at the same time acknowledge its flaws.

Tolkien's views reflected the times in which he lived, and his understanding of race is certainly not as problematic as, say, Lovecraft's. However, even when we don't intend to do harm, we often cause it anyway. If it was just a matter of separating good people from assholes, the world would be a lot simpler. But it isn't.

I saw 2 of the 3 LoTR films in Cairo with an Arab audience, including a lot of kids. When the haradrim legions came on screen atop their mumakils, the reactions on the kids' faces ranged from stunned to crushed to ashamed to--and this was possibly the worst--simply tired. To us, LoTR is a way to escape from reality and live in a world where what Tolkien called eucatastrophe--the sudden overturning of evil, against all odds--is possible. For these kids, LoTR was a reminder that they cannot escape reality. Even in Middle Earth, they are the bad guys.

It was hard to watch. It was not harmless.

That aside, I'm surprised so few people want to talk about the gist of this essay--namely, that things are looking up, and that the portrayal of race in fantasy is changing in some fascinating, and, I think, hopeful ways.
54. R.J. Robledo
@G_Willow_Wilson: Wow. That --that is powerfully depressing! The reactions of the children in Egypt certainly put things in a new light. You are right --it's not harmless, and we all need to realize that.

And I continue to appreciate the message of your article, and the positive trends that are showing in modern fantasy is encouraging.
55. Tura
The current trend that the author is highlighting just morphs Orcs into humans of a different appearance.

That I find is a problem with a lot of fantasy. Elves are also usually pointy-eared humans, Tolkien elves for all their endless bloody versifying were at least different. What is the point of writing fantasy races if all they are are humans with slightly varying lifespan and physical strength? What would life be like to an immortal anyhow - very few writers seem to give it much thought, or they strip the immortality off them alltogether. Often their cultures are less otherwordly and interesting than some cultures in history or even in today's world, nor do they have much in the way of varying cultures: Humans may have several tribes or nations but elves usually two or three, other races like orcs just have one culture, so the tusks and ears and hairy backs are just so much windowdressing.

BTW I watched LOTR with my Pakistani flatmates one Christmas and they did enjoy it and paid no heed to the racist overtones of the Haradrim or the rest of it. Men of the West! Indeed. One of the guys did ask if the elves were angels, which amused me as it was sort of unintentionally insightful: the Tolkien elves have little in common with the elfs of European folklore that tend to be rather nasty critters. I do wonder if the person above did not slightly project his own feelings to the Cairo audience, after all the Arabs never used elephants in battle. The troops of Salah ad'Din from any Egyptian epic would be finely turned out in chainmail and shiny, pointy helmets, more like the elven warriors - while of course the Haradrim do share many features with Arabs.
56. Rashid Saif
A little late in this discussion...
I would like to point out that it is an anachronism to view the
Haradrim as arabs. It shows that we view history through the lens of the victorious Arab conquest when we subsume all the disparate people's with any common attirbutes as the fictional tribe as 'arab'. In fact, the Egyptians Willow projected here own feelings onto in the movie theater aren't originally 'arab' by a long shot. They were a Byzantine Copts who were conquered and 'arabized' by their colonizers. Indeed, they were many things under many empires before they were Byzantine Copts. All of north africa is the same. Anyone concerned with concepts of imperialism, colonization and 'otherness' betrays an incredbile ignorance of history in simply pointing to brown middle easterners and saying 'arab'. Arabization was an act of colonization and an erasure/deletion of indigneous religion and culture. For most of us, the arabs were just another (incredibly successful) colonizer who imposed a religious system that canonized their language and culture on various conquered peoples.
57. Jeanne T.
FTA: "We need the collective wisdom of every race and culture if we are to survive."

Some cultures eat people. Do you have a personal preference? What "wisdom" might cannibalistic cultures have to offer humanity? What wisdom might cultures who oppress women offer us? You did say "every" culture? Did you mean that?
58. Sam99
I read recently that CS Lewis had become a Christian Apolegist (apparently people who argues against Jesus the man in favour of Jesus the divine / God) after meeting Tolkien. He's been an atheist before, don't know much about Tolkien but certainly comes across from his books as someone with a manichean view of the world - at least in his writings. Maybe he felt thats what people needed to read at that time. Who knows.
59. gruff
56. Rashid Saif - Thank you for that excellent reminder. Somehow historical Arab imperialism always gets a free pass these days, even though in some ways it was far more ruthless than the European variety.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment