Back to the Orcs

Not so long ago, I completed my last post about Orcs with a stream session (which I like to call “streamlore”) on my Twitch channel. Here are the main subjects we tackled, and the main elements I gave to answer various questions during the stream.

Let’s start with the basis: The Orcs; why, who, how?

According to Tom Shippey, Orcs appeared in JRR Tolkien’s early mythology firstly because he needed a bottomless supply of enemies, enemies for which the readers wouldn’t feel great compassion and would hardly relate to. Hence the somehow rigid and uniform aspect of the Orcs, especially in the earliest texts, when they were still mere creatures made of stones.

Now, the term « orc » in our translations of the lore of Arda, involves several manifestations of evil creatures. I’m no Middle-earth language expert, far be it from it, but I can nonetheless try to give a few elements to shed light some important ideas in the conception of those creatures, but also in the ways they are considered by the Free Peoples of Middle-earth.

  • In Primitive Quenya, the stem *ruku would have been mainly used to refer to the shadows that roamed around the Elves at Cuiviénen (the place of their awakening) and which terrified them during their youth.
  • That stem would then have been developed in Common Eldarin into *rauku or *raukō , which was used for greater and more terrible enemies. Some of you might have recognised the element which we find also in the term Valarauka, the Quenya for « Balrog ».
  • In Valinor, there was no Orc of course, except in the tales and stories about Middle-earth and the Great March that led the Elves to the West. And in order to describe the fell beasts which they met during their journey, the Eldar used the Quenya Urko. Its sense was quite vague though, since it happened to designate any source of fright, roaming shadows, or beasts.
  • During the same period, in Beleriand, the Sindar had the term urug, the meaning of which is rather close to that of its quenyan cousin urko, and  which can be translated by “devil”. Yet, the Sindarin form orch (plural yrch) appeared as soon as the Orcs stepped into lands peopled by the Sindar.
  • After the return of the Ñoldor from Valinor to Beleriand, and their steady contacts with the Sindar, the language of the exiled Ñoldor, called Exilic Quenya, made use of urko, orko to designate those creatures.
  • As for the Orcs themselves, they borrowed the terms, glad to be called by words that refer to fear and hatred. Therefore in Black Speech, they use Uruk. Yet, this word is mostly used to describe the “disciplined Orcs”, those who are trained and obedient under the orders of their master. Creatures of inferior classes were usually called Snaga, which can be translated by « slaves ».

Note: JRR Tolkien explained the his choice of the word « orc » in English to translate Q urko, S orch, is « derived from Old English orc ‘demon' », but that there is no semantic connection between the two terms. It is only a question of phonetics (letter 144). And it has nothing to do with the sea mammal.

Therefore we can almost say that there are several “categories” of orcs, underlined by language itself :

  • Snaga: Minor Orcs, “slaves”
  • Uruk: Trained Orcs
  • Uruk Hai: Third Age Orcs, probably offspring of interbreeding between orcs and humans. Hai simply means « folk »
  • Trolls: large beasts presented as rather idiotic, but improved by the training of Sauron, with a rather limited language… and remember what I previously said about language and freewill here. Nevertheless, they could adopt a form of Black Speech.
  • Olog Hai: Great creatures of the Third Age, who did not look like usual Orcs and were bigger than the greatest Orcs – olog means « troll » in Black Speech, and they could be the offspring of another kind of interbreeding (Orc/Troll?)
  • Goblins : this is another name for Orcs, since it is a mere question of translation… Let me explain:

If you accept the metatextual game staged by JRR Tolkien, the LotR isn’t a fictional work, but the editorial work and translation of a very old text, which was itself based on The Red Book of Westmarch, mainly written by Bilbo and Frodo in the Common tongue (called Sôval Phârë) of Middle-earth, and translated by an editor (JRRT?) into modern English. Therefore, the choice of those names (« orcs’ », « trolls », « goblins ») can be rather arbitrary,  and that is why the same sort of creatures can be called alternatively « orcs » or « goblins ». The latter mostly appears in The Hobbit in which there is no more than two occurrences of the word « orc », whereas ‘’goblins’ never appears in LotR. From an external perspective, it must be noted that, when he was preparing The Hobbit for publication, JRRT didn’t plan to turn it into an extension of the legendarium on which he had been working for years, a legendarium in which the terms « orc » already existed. It must also be underlined that The Hobbit was first and foremost devised as a story he could tell his children and his friends; it is therefore built on several different literary references, involving tales and legends and folklore ((sparkled with many references to the famous « northern spirit »), and the term « goblins » was precisely used because it belongs to a literary tradition of tales which Tolkien came to try to reinvent (letter 144):

They [the orcs] are not based on direct experience of mine; but owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition (goblin is used as a translation in The Hobbit, where orc only occurs once, I think), especially as it appears in George MacDonald…

Of course, Christopher Tolkien looked closely into the matter and gave a few explanations in HoMe VI:

The word orc goes back to the Lost Tales, and had been pervasive in all my father’s subsequent writings. In the Lost Tales the two terms were used as equivalents, though sometimes apparently distinguished (see 11.364, entry Goblins). A clue may be found in a passage that occurs in both the earlier and the later Quenta (IV.82, V.233): ‘Goblins they may be called, but in ancient days they were strong and fell.’ At this stage it seems that ‘Orcs’ are to be regarded as a more formidable kind of ‘Goblin’.

And indeed, in the different drafts for LotR, the word « goblin » is common, but JRRT systematically amended it to replace with « orc ». Yet, in those drafts, Gandalf mentions, quite early, the servants of the Dark Lord as « Orcs and Goblins ». And, in the passage taking place in the Mines of Moria, the draft tells about Gandalf saying « There are Goblins – of very evil kind, larger than usual, real Orcs. » It is a rather confusing statement, and I tend to think it wouldn’t be completely incoherent to imagine that there could be slight differences between the creatures called « orcs » and « goblins », if only in terms of height. Or perhaps “goblins” could be a specific word to characterize evil creatures that would be more independent than the actual uruk and snaga from Mordor (and Isengard). Yet, it seems that, in the end, those two terms are rather interchangeable.

Concerning the Trolls, Treebeard says to the hobbits that they were “made” as counterfeit of the Ents, just like the Orcs would have been corrupted Elves in origins. Be careful though! JRRT wrote that Treebeard doesn’t know everything  and that he too can make mistakes!

As for the origins of Orcs, I already gave all you need to know here, but a little recap can’t hurt:

Mom, where do baby Orcs come from?

Another matter that bothered a lot of readers and fans, is that of the actual way of procreation among Orcs.
In The Hobbit, Bolg is said to be Azog’s son. It would therefore be logical to imagine that Orcs have natural, biological parents. And that’s what is explicitly said in The Silmarillion, in which we learn that the orcs multiply in the manner of the Children of Eru, that is « sexually », quoth Tom Shippey. But things aren’t that simple, are they ? And we can wonder how to explain the natural birth of pre-corrupted creatures. In other words, it would be difficult to imagine corruption as something hereditary, inscribed in genetics, since Melkor doesn’t seem powerful enough to corrupt an entire species to its core. And indeed, as I explained in my previous post: would Eru (the one God) give fëar (/souls) to such creatures as they are born ? Tolkien himself wasn’t convinced.
That is why T. Shippey believes that Tolkien had in mind the spirit of an excerpt from the epic poem Beowulf, in which we find those words about Grendel and his mother (the antagonists): “no hie faeder cunnon’, « men know no father for them’’. According to Shippey, the only way to solve this issue would be for Tolkien to have Orcs that would multiply like flies, perhaps as in a manufactured incubator. Even though nothing of the like appears in the texts, this is the option chosen by Peter Jackson in his movies. Remember?

If the aesthetics of this scene and its staging are convincing ( and terrifying!), it is nonetheless one interpretation, one that neither sets up the filiation between Elves and Orcs, nor the actual « innate » corruptive state of those creatures. This interpretation also undermines the idea of interbreeding between Orcs and humans (corrupted humans, reduced to « orcs-level »), unless Sauron and Saruman managed to handle invitro fertilization for their troops… who knows?
Furthermore, we know that Orcs kept on multiplying even when they had no master, therefore the idea of incubators in the pits of Angband or Mordor or Isengard, although very attractive, seems to leave aside a certain number of information and elements.

However, as I said in my last post, it became more and more embarrassing for Tolkien to connect the Orcs to the Elves, if only for ethical reasons, and that is why he would have searched for other explanations concerning the origins of the Orcs, and that is precisely why he changed his mind so many times by the end of his life, never finding a way to reconcile all those elements.

Finally, we do not know what JRRT had in mind, nor do we know the definitive version he would have chosen, and with all the possibilities given through the different texts, why should we limit our imagination and interpretative pleasures?

Through all those enquiries appears another issue, especially in the case of natural procreation: where are the female Orcs?!

Well, actually there is no evidence of their existence in Tolkien’s published writings. But, if you favour the option of Orcs procreating naturally, you can still fill the gaps, and this case, we can give several elements which could explain the situation:

Firstly, we can imagine that the narrators of The Hobbit and LotR never meet any female orcs, given the fact that they mostly meet Orc-guards, soldiers, captains… Mordor is not characterized by its progressist ideas, is it? (I won’t talk of Sauron’s latent misogyny). So it would make sense if the females were relegated to kitchens and nurseries.

But the more obvious and the easiest explanation would be that male and female Orcs are very similar in appearance, at least in the eye of the other people of Middle-earth who wouldn’t be able to differentiate the sexes; Uglúk might be a female for all we know! (just think about it a second…).

There again, anyone should feel free to favour an option and to set their imagination free, given that no actual conclusion was delivered. Besides, we speak of fantasy for a reason, right?

I hope I answered a few questions through those lines. Feel free to use the commentary section below for your remarks or if you need me to shed light on something. Thank you ! 🙂


  • JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
  • JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion
  • JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, The Book of the Lost Tales (1 & 2), History of Middle-earth volume I & II
  • JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, The Shaping of Middle-earth, History of Middle-earth volume IV
  • JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, The Lost Road and Other Texts History of Middle-earth volume V
  • JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, The Return of the Shadow, History of Middle-earth volume VI
  • JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring, History of Middle-earth, volume X
  • JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien, The War of the Jewels, History of Middle-earth, volume XI
  • JRR Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenters assisted by Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-earth
Images : Personal screenshots from the video game Shadow of Mordor

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