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.
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.
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.