An orc (sometimes spelled ork; //) is a fictional humanoid monster like a goblin. Orcs were brought into modern usage by the fantasy writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, especially The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien's works, orcs are a brutish, aggressive, ugly, and malevolent race of monsters, contrasting with the benevolent Elves. There is a suggestion, among several somewhat contradictory origin stories, that they are a corrupted race of elves.
Mythological monsters with names similar to "orc" can be found in the Old English poem Beowulf, in Early Modern poetry, and in Northern European folk tales and fairy tales. Tolkien stated that he took the name from Beowulf.[T 1] The orc appears on lists of imaginary creatures in two of Charles Kingsley's mid-1860s novels.
Tolkien's concept of orcs has been adapted into the fantasy fiction of other authors, and into games of many different genres such as Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, and Warcraft.
Further information: Beowulf and Middle-earth
The Latin word orcus is glossed as "orc, þyrs, oððe hel-deofol"[a] ("Goblin, spectre, or hell-devil") in the 10th century Old English Cleopatra Glossaries, 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."[b]
The term is used just once in Beowulf as the plural compound orcneas, one of the tribes alongside the elves and ettins (giants) condemned by God:
—Beowulf, Fitt I, vv. 111–14
Orcneas is translated "evil spirits" above, but its meaning is uncertain. Frederick Klaeber suggested it consisted of orc < L. orcus "the underworld" + neas "corpses", to which the translation "evil spirits" failed to do justice.[c] 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 monster.
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, stating that he was passing on oral folktales from his region. In the tales, Basile used huorco, huerco or uerco, the Neapolitan form of Italian orco, lit. "ogre", to describe a large, hairy, tusked, mannish beast which could speak, lived in a dark forest or garden and might capture and eat humans.[d] The Oxford English Dictionary records an Early Modern period orke, meaning "ogre", in Samuel Holland's 1656 fairy tale Don Zara del Fogo, a pastiche of Spanish romances such as Don Quixote.[e]
Tolkien began the modern use of the English term "orc" to denote a race of evil, humanoid creatures. His 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.[f] 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).[T 2][T 1] They had similar names in other Middle-earth languages: uruk in Black Speech;[T 1] 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.[T 2]
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.[T 1] He explained that his "orc" was "derived from Old English orc 'demon', but only because of its phonetic suitability",[T 1] and
I originally took the word from Old English orc (Beowulf 112 orc-neas and the gloss orc: þyrs ('ogre'), heldeofol ('hell-devil')).[g] This is supposed not to be connected with modern English orc, ork, a name applied to various sea-beasts of the dolphin order".[T 3]
Tolkien also observed a similarity 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."[T 2]
Orcs are of human shape, and of varying size;[T 4] in The Hobbit they are called "goblins", though Thorin Oakenshield's Elvish sword from Gondolin is named as "Orcrist, Goblin-cleaver, but the goblins called it simply Biter".[T 5] They are depicted as ugly and filthy, with a taste for human flesh. They are fanged, bow-legged and long-armed. Most are small and avoid daylight.[T 6]
By the Third Age, a new breed of orc had emerged, the Uruk-hai, larger and more powerful, and no longer afraid of daylight.[T 6] 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 Peregrin Took stale bread and a "strip of raw dried flesh... the flesh of he dared not guess what creature".[T 6]
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.[T 6]
Half-orcs appear in The Lord of the Rings, created by interbreeding of orcs and Men;[T 7] they were able to go in sunlight.[T 6] The "sly Southerner" in The Fellowship of the Ring looks "more than half like a goblin";[T 8] similar but more orc-like hybrids appear in The Two Towers "man-high, but with goblin-faces, sallow, leering, squint-eyed."[T 9]
In Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, the actors playing orcs are made up with masks designed to make them look evil. After a disagreement with the "notorious" Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Jackson had one of the masks made to resemble Weinstein "as a sort of fuck you."
Main article: Tolkien's sentience dilemma
Orcs presented Tolkien with a dilemma. He attempted to resolve this by proposing several semi-contradictory theories for their origins. In The Tale of Tinúviel, orcs originate as "foul broodlings of Melkor who fared abroad doing his evil work".[T 10] In The Silmarillion, orcs are East Elves (Avari) enslaved, tortured, and bred by Morgoth (as Melkor became known);[T 11] 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".[T 12] Or, they were "beasts of humanized shape", possibly, Tolkien wrote, Elves mated with beasts, and later Men.[T 13] Or again, Tolkien noted, they could have been fallen Maiar, perhaps a kind called Boldog, like lesser Balrogs; or corrupted Men.[T 7]
Shippey writes that the orcs in The Lord of the Rings were almost certainly created just to equip Middle-earth with "a continual supply of enemies over whom one need feel no compunction", or in Tolkien's words from The Monsters and the Critics "the infantry of the old war" ready to be slaughtered. Shippey states that all the same, orcs 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, as a Catholic, took it as a given that "evil cannot make, only mock", so orcs could not have an equal and opposite morality to that of men or elves. In a 1954 letter, Tolkien wrote that orcs were "fundamentally a race of 'rational incarnate' creatures, though horribly corrupted, if no more so than many Men to be met today."[T 14] Robert T. Tally wrote in Mythlore that despite the uniform presentation of orcs as "loathsome, ugly, cruel, feared, and especially terminable", "Tolkien could not resist the urge to flesh out and 'humanize' these inhuman creatures from time to time", in the process giving them their own morality. Shippey notes that in The Two Towers, the orc Gorbag disapproves of the "regular elvish trick"–an immoral act–of seeming to abandon a comrade, as he wrongly supposes Sam Gamgee has done with Frodo Baggins. 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; Tolkien believed that evil had to be actively fought, with war if necessary, something that Shippey describes as representing the Manichean position, that evil coexists with good and is at least equally powerful.
|Created evil||Like animals||Created good, but fallen|
|Origin of orcs
according to Tolkien
|"Brooded" by Morgoth[T 10]||"Beasts of humanized shape"[T 13]||Fallen Maiar, or corrupted Men/Elves[T 11][T 7]|
|Moral implication||Orcs are wholly evil (unlike Men) and can be slaughtered without compunction||Orcs have no morality, no power of speech, are not sentient||Orcs have morality just like Men|
|Resulting problem||Orcs like Gorbag have a moral sense (even if they can't keep to it) and can speak, which conflicts with their being wholly evil or not even sentient. Since evil cannot make, only mock, orcs can't have an equal and opposite morality to Men.||It's wrong just to slaughter them, then|
Main article: Tolkien and race
The possibility of racism in Tolkien's descriptions of orcs has been debated. In a private letter, Tolkien describes orcs as:[T 15]
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.[T 15]
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 as a representation of the "Other", and states "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 Tolkien's letters to this effect. 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".
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. In a letter to his son, Christopher, who was serving in the RAF in the Second World War, Tolkien wrote of orcs as appearing on both sides of the conflict:
Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in 'realistic' fiction ... only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For 'romance' has grown out of 'allegory', and its wars are still derived from the 'inner war' of allegory in which good is on one side and various modes of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels.[T 16]
John Magoun, writing in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, states that Middle-earth has a "fully expressed moral geography". Any moral bias towards a north-western geography, however, was directly denied by Tolkien in a letter to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, who had recently interviewed him in 1967:
Auden has asserted that for me 'the North is a sacred direction'. That is not true. The North-west of Europe, where I (and most of my ancestors) have lived, has my affection, as a man's home should. I love its atmosphere, and know more of its histories and languages than I do of other parts; but it is not 'sacred', nor does it exhaust my affections. I do have, for instance, a particular fondness for the Latin language, and among its descendants for Spanish. That it is untrue for my story, a mere reading of the synopses should show. The North was the seat of the fortresses of the Devil [ie. Morgoth].[T 17]
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:[T 18]
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![T 18]
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 historian and Tolkien scholar Jared Lobdell likewise disagreed with any notions of racism inherent or latent in Tolkien's works, and wondered "if there were a way of writing epic fantasy about a battle against an evil spirit and his monstrous servants without its being subject to speculation of racist intent".
The journalist David Ibata writes that the interpretations of orcs in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films look much like "the worst depictions of the Japanese drawn by American and British illustrators during World War II."
As a response to the type-casting of orcs as generic evil characters or antagonists, some novels portray events from the point of view of the orcs, or make them 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 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.
Orcs based on The Lord of the Rings have become a fixture of fantasy fiction and role-playing games. In the fantasy tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, orcs were among 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 2008 book Classic Monsters Revisited.
Games Workshop's Warhammer universe features cunning and brutal Orks in a fantasy setting, who are driven not so much by a need to do evil as to obtain fulfilment through the act of war. In the Warhammer 40,000, a series of science-fiction games, they are a green-skinned alien species, called 'Orks'. Orcs are an important race in Warcraft, a high fantasy franchise created by Blizzard Entertainment. Several orc characters from the Warcraft universe are playable heroes in the crossover multiplayer game Heroes of the Storm. In the Elder Scrolls series, many orcs or Orsimer are skilled blacksmiths. 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). The Skylander Voodood from the first game in the series, Spyro's Adventure, is an orc. The 1993 Wizards of the Coast collectible card game Magic: The Gathering involves numerous orc cards.
Ukrainians have used the term "orcs" (Ukrainian: орки, romanized: orki) to describe[disputed ] and demonize[disputed ] Russian forces and tactics. Use of the word increased when Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2022.