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The Familiar Face of the Orc

“I have met them, or thought so, in England’s green and pleasant land.” –J.R.R. Tolkien (Letters, no. 78)

Orcs are now much bigger than the works of Tolkien; their race has propagated across hundreds of RPGs and mass-market paperbacks. Their attraction for fantasy writers is obvious; any world that features a lot of action-violence must have plentiful mooks for the heroes to mow down. Whether Tolkien would have viewed the current dominance of Orcs in fantasy with satisfaction or horror is anyone’s guess. But I don't believe he ever considered their field of operation to be limited to the bounds of fiction.


The term "Orc" bled into Tolkien's thoughts on a range of topics; his letters would refer to real-world atrocities as "orc-work" or brutal polemics as "orc-talk." Tolkien seemed to consider them an expression of the worst sides of human nature, a physical representation of the horrors of how far we can fall.

“I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction…” Tolkien once wrote to his son Christopher, “Only in real life they are on both sides, of course.” (Letters, no. 71) In one of the afterwords of Lord of the Rings, he notes that “Models [for orc language] are easy to find. Much the same sort of talk can still be heard among the orc-minded; dreary and repetitive with hatred and contempt.


But Tolkien also acknowledged that in the real world, “There are no genuine Uruks, that is folks made bad by the intention of their maker; and not many who are so corrupted as to be irredeemable.” (Letters, no. 78) He even seemed to struggle at times with the notion that Orcs themselves could be considered 'irredeemable.'


Within the stories of Middle-Earth, Tolkien never provided a single definitive explanation for how Orcs came into being, except that Morgoth was responsible. It remains unknown whether he made them by twisting Elves and Men to evil purpose, by altering beasts to look and act like Men, or by some other nefarious means. Yet it is clear that they were intended as a corruption and a mockery of the Children of God. “That God would ‘tolerate’ that,” says Tolkien, “Seems no worse theology than the toleration of the calculated dehumanizing of Men by tyrants that goes on today.” (Letters, no. 153)

Tolkien’s stories are always as much about the inner spiritual struggle as they are about overcoming exterior challenges. “For ‘romance’ has grown out of ‘allegory,’ and its wars are still derived from the ‘inner war’ of allegory,” as he put it (Letters, no. 71). He knew that every Man has a bit of the Orc in him, and that no Orc ever committed any act so evil that has not also been done by a Man.


*Letter numbers taken from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter.


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