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Orc

A Latin word for a demon or a creature of the underworld, the word Orc was revived by J. R. R. Tolkien in his fictional stories of Middle-earth as the name of a race of creatures that are often used by evil forces as soldiers.

Table of contents
1 Sources of the name "orc"
2 Tolkien's Orcs

Sources of the name "orc"

Orcus, in Roman mythology, was an alternative name for Pluto, Hades, or Dis Pater, god of the land of the dead. The name "Orcus" seems to have been given to his evil, punishing side, as the god who tormented evildoers in the afterlife.

Pliny the Elder wrote of orcs in his Historia naturalis, describing a sea monster with large teeth. In Orlando Furioso, an epic by Ludovico Ariosto, the name of "orc" was given to a sea monster that captured the damsel Angelica, and was fought by the hero Rogero riding a hippogriff. It is this use of the word that gave us the term orcinus orca as the scientific name for the killer whale.

From this usage, the word "orc" made it into English by being borrowed by Michael Drayton in his Polyolbion, an epic poem about Brutus the Trojan and the mythical founders of Britain, and also appears in the epic poem Paradise Lost, by John Milton. William Blake names one of the characters in his complex mythology "Orc"; Blake's Orc, a proper name, seems to be the embodiment of creative passion and energy, and stands opposed to Urizen, the embodiment of reason.

Tolkien's Orcs

The humanoid, non-maritime race of orcs are Tolkien's invention. The term "Orc" is properly capitalised in Tolkien's writing, but not necessarily in other sources.

In Tolkien's writing, Orcs are described as humanoid, roughly human-sized, ugly and filthy. Although not dim-witted, they are portrayed as dull and miserable beings, who corrupt words (an insult, when stated by a philologist like Tolkien!) and are only able to destroy, not to create. Orcs are used as soldiers by both the greater and lesser villains of The Lord of the RingsSauron and Saruman. In Tolkien's Sindarin language, "Orc" is orch, plural yrch.

The origin of Orcs

The origin of Orcs is an open question. In Tolkien's writings, evil is not capable of independent creation, making it unlikely that the vala Melkor (later called Morgoth), who was obviously the first to produce them, could do that ex nihilo. According to the oldest "theory" proposed by Tolkien, Orcs were in fact transformed from Elves - the purest form of life on (the Earth)- by means of torture and mutilation. Moreover, if Orcs were in fact Elves at their core, this could perhaps mean that they were also immortal — a fact which, if true, would seem inconsistent with Tolkien's treatment of orcs, though the books do not openly confirm or deny it. If Orcs indeed were immortal, it holds no doubt that their FŽar would not be allowed reÔncarnation by Mandos, if they even answered the calling. Most Orcs would probably fear the calling of Mandos, and therefore would see their FŽar diminished to evil spirits. These may have been some of the evil spirits occasionally described in the books, such as the spirit which tempted Gorlim of Barahir's company, or the Barrow-wights. There is some evidence for the immortality, or otherwise long life of Orcs in ROTK: Gorbag and Shagrat, during the conversation which Sam overheard, mention the "Great Siege" of the Last Alliance. From the sentence it becomes clear they were there, and actually remembered it themselves: an event which lay millennia in the past.

There are hints in the The History of Middle-earth series of books, (especially in Morgoth's Ring in the section "Myths Transformed"), that some Orc leaders, such as the First Age's Boldog, or the Great Goblin encountered by Bilbo and the Dwarves, may in fact have been fallen Maiar which had taken Orc form:

Some of these things may have been delusions and phantoms but some were no doubt shapes taken by the servants of Melkor, mocking and degrading the very forms of the children. For Melkor had in his service great numbers of Maiar, who had the power, as their Master, of taking visible and tangible shape in Arda. ('Morgoth's Ring', "Myths transformed", text X')

Boldog (…) is a name that occurs many times in the tales of the War. But it is possible that Boldog was not a personal name, and either a title, or else the name of a kind of creature: the Orc-formed Maiar, only less formidable than the Balrogs (Author's footnote to the text X)

Melkor had corrupted many spirits - some great as Sauron, or less as Balrogs. The least could have been primitive Orcs. (Author's note to text)

Later under Morgoth's lieutenant, the necromancer Sauron, it has been suggested that Men were cross-bred with the Orcs. This process was later repeated during the War of the Ring, creating the fierce Orcs known as Uruk-hai.

Yet other Orcs may have begun as animals of vaguely humanoid shapes, empowered by the will of the Dark Lord (first Morgoth, later Sauron): this may explain the references to their "beaks and feathers" in Tolkien's writings.

The Orcs were beasts of humanized shape (…). ('Morgoth's Ring', "Myths transformed", text VIII')

It is certain all Orcs were dependant on the Dark Lord in various ways: after their leader was defeated, the Orcs were confused and dismayed, and easily scattered by their enemies. In the millennia after Morgoth's defeat and banishment from Arda, they were without a leader they degenerated to small, quarrelsome tribes hiding in the mountains. Only when Sauron returned to power did they begin to reclaim some of their old power. The same happened after Sauron's defeat by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men: only when Sauron returned as the Necromancer of Mirkwood did the Orcs become a real danger for Middle-Earth again.

While Tolkien originally saw all Orcs as descended from tortured Elves, later comments of his indicate, according to Christopher Tolkien in Morgoth's Ring ("Myths Transformed, text X"), that he began to feel uncomfortable with this theory. At about the same time he removed the references to the Thrall-Noldorin, he also began searching for a new origin for the Orcs. The Orc origin question may have been one of the problems Tolkien tried to solve by completely changing the cosmology and prehistory of Arda. By setting the origin of Men back to almost the same time as the Elves, he possibly allowed for Men to be the origin of Orcs all along. However, Tolkien died before he could completely this upheaval of the cosmology, and in the published version of Silmarillion, the Elf origin of Orcs was adopted.


It is interesting to note that to an extent, Tolkien did not regard Orcs as evil in their own right, but only as tools of Melkor and Sauron. He wrote once that "we were all orcs in the Great War", indicating perhaps that an orc for him was not an inherent build-up of personality, but rather a state of mind bound upon destruction.

In The Hobbit, Tolkien used the word "goblin" for Orcs, perhaps because he felt it was more familiar to his readers, or because he had not yet identified the world of The Hobbit with Middle-earth (which he had already begun creating in a separate work that would eventually become The Silmarillion). In The Lord of the Rings, "Orc" is used predominantly, and "goblin" mostly in the Hobbits' speech. This change can be seen either as a part of the shift towards the use of Elvish words that occurred during the period between the writing of The Hobbit and the writing of The Lord of the Rings, or a translation of the Hobbits' more colloquial manner (if we "accept" the books' authenticity and regard Tolkien merely as a translator).

Since the publication of Tolkien's epic novel, The Lord of the Rings, creatures called "orcs" have become a fixture of fantasy fiction and role-playing games, most famously in Dungeons & Dragons. However, in these derivative sources, orcs and goblins are usually considered distinct races of monsters. In these sources, orcs are almost always villainous, cast as a brutal, bestial, and tribal parody of humans and human society. Even game players that wish to play the role of an orc are instead usually encouraged to play a half-orc, the offspring of an orc and a human. In addition, orc is the name of one of the races in the game, Warcraft.

See also: ogre