There is a lot of speculation out there as to where orcs come from in the Tolkien legendarium. There are a lot of answers to this question. The slimy mud-pits of Peter Jackson’s Isengard come to mind, for example.
Some things we “know”: there seem to be no orc nor goblin women at all. There are no children, adolescents, etc. No orc villages where they grow up and raise crops. We have no idea what they eat in Goblin Town, when they can’t get dwarves and a hobbit. Orcs are, when we meet them, either singing tormentors or war-wearly soldiers who fear the secret police. We know that over time, mountain tunnels re-fill with orcs. They breed, if they breed, in secret, like vermin. They are described as “…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.” (Letter 210) (I’m not going into the implicit racism here and elsewhere in Tolkien’s works – but there it is) In an unpublished letter to a Mrs. Munsby, he said, “There must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known.” The ambiguity is increased by Tolkien’s method with his own legendarium, which I appreciate – treating it like a set of documents with multiple authors and a lot of uncertainty.
I just re-read The Lord of the Rings for the many-teenth time, and part of what was on my mind was this whole orc question. The text itself does not answer the question, and even reading Tolkien’s other writings and letters gives no clear, definitive answer. One theory found in the Silmarillion is that when Morgoth captured elves he twisted them, by slow torturous arts, into the first orcs. We know that Morgoth, and by extension Sauron and Saruman, cannot create new forms of life but can only twist what already exists. In the context of the Silmarillion, this is presented as a theory among the elves that they don’t know to be true.
So, if that is true, how did Saruman begin to create the half-orcs and goblin-men we see as early as when the hobbits first reach Bree? We can look at the White Wizard because, unlike Morgoth or Sauron, Saruman created orcs and goblins over the course of the story we know, and I think that the way his creations are described gives us insight into where orcs and goblins come from.
There must be some mid-way point between non-orc and orc that Saruman was able to reach while working in secret. Now, one assumption is that he bred half-orcs, meaning he presumably kidnapped humans and forced them to have sex with orcs. So the pits beneath Isengard would have been rape-pits. Now, Tolkien is famously uninterested in where dwarf-children come from – the only implication that dwarf-children even exist is that dwarves who used to live in Dale were highly-skilled toymakers. In this, Tolkien is simply drawing on his source material: Germanic myth and legend, equally uninterested in where dwarf-babies come from. (Come to think of it, all of his elvish characters also enter their particular stories as full-grown adults, and the elf-children tends to refer to elves who lived near the creation of the world rather than literal children.) But Tolkien is no more interested in dwarf-children than the Norse Sagas and Eddas were, and this disinterest is also applied to orcs.
My theory is that orcs are the result of torment. This explains a lot of things in the story, while bringing in the theory (attributed to the elvish creators of the stories Bilbo presumably translated in The Silmarillion as Translations From the Elvish by B. B.) that the first orcs were born of elves, twisted and tormented in the prisons beneath Angband in the First Age.
It Explains Goblin Town
When we first meet orcs, it is in The Hobbit, and they are called goblins. What do we learn about them? They are tricky – they have a clever trap designed to help them capture travelers who take refuge in a particularly desirable cave. Once the goblins have captured the dwarves, they sing a song about how they are going to drag them down underground to work as slaves, presumably until they die. In An Unexpected Journey, the Goblin King goes into greater detail, spelling out the torture as well as slavery that the dwarves have to look forward to.
But what if the reason that the caverns beneath the Misty Mountains slowly fill with goblins and orcs over the years is because they are capturing travelers, like the dwarves, and tormenting them underground until they become orcs themselves?
It reminds me of the short story of a person who is tortured by a devil in hell. Eventually, the devil hands the person the torture implements, because they have become a demon, and then a new person is sent to them in order to be tormented. Hell is self-sustaining.
It Explains Sauron’s Control of the East and South
We are told more than once in the Lord of the Rings that Sauron holds sway over the Haradrim, Corsairs of Umbar, Easterlings, and similar peoples living south and east of Mordor. Then why, one wonders, would he use orcs at all? Why not just bring up human conscripts, as he does during the War of the Ring, all the time? Why are his minions almost invariably orcs?
In my theory, he has control of these regions so that he always has a fresh supply of people to torment and turn into orcs. Additionally, this explains why orcs are racially coded as dark-skinned and/or Asian – just as people living in the East and South of Middle-Earth would be. If all of the living orcs were descendants of the first elves Morgoth captured and twisted to his own purposes, why would they have features reflecting the lands that Sauron controlled? They would all have twisted elvish features, one would assume.
One can speculate, perhaps, that Sauron lacked the power to capture and twist elves the way that Morgoth, most powerful of the Valar, could. Maybe Morgoth’s orcs, some of whom are still clearly around (note the conversations Sam overhears in the tower of Cirith Ungol between orcs who seem to remember the First Age), were superior, and Sauron is only able to round up humans who are easier to corrupt, to create his own orcs. That would fit with the overall theme, in the ancient world and in Middle-Earth, of decline over the centuries on all sides.
It Explains Why Mordor Is So Awful
Mordor, as a stronghold, makes no sense. High walls, literally raised by Sauron’s power and by his orcs after the fact, sometimes manufactured out of slag and industrial waste, encircle this land, keeping foes out and allies in. Within those encircling mountains is a horrific land where almost nothing grows, where the water is almost undrinkable, and the ‘air itself is a poisonous fume’ as Boromir explains in the first Peter Jackson film.
Mordor is precisely the kind of place that orcs would create – wherever we see them, they trample and harm and vandalize – but why would Sauron create it? Mordor makes no sense if orcs are just another species of being, like elf or dwarf or hobbit, but Mordor makes perfect sense if orcs are created by torment. They have to live in a perpetual hell in order to remain sufficiently orcish. The walls have to keep the orcs in as much as keep foes out, because torment is what makes an orc.
It Explains Saruman’s Half-Orcs
This is precisely why Saruman is working with what appear to be half-orcs or goblin-men – he has not had the time to twist his own slaves sufficiently to make them into full orcs. They are larger than normal for orcs, who are described as smaller in stature than most humans, and they are still able to move around freely during daytime, but they are sufficiently orcish to have all of the cruelty he desires in a personal army. This is why he is able to send some of the less-goblin-looking north as spies and, later, as ruffians serving the Boss Lotho. The orc-ing process is not complete. Throughout The Scouring of the Shire, the impression we have of Lotho’s men (really Sharky’s men) is that they are orcish humans. They have the racially-coded features, and the seemingly innate small-mindedness and cruelty, but are not so orcish that the hobbits know to resist them at first they way they would if they were invaded by a small army of goblins. (Ask Golfimbul)
It Connects Orcs to Wraiths
Wraiths are once-great humans, kings of Numenorean descent, twisted and warped so profoundly that they lose their physical bodies and all sense of individual will. They are called wraiths very intentionally, as wraith shares an Old English root word with wreath and writhe – to twist, or to be twisted. Orcs created by ongoing torment would fit the strong theme in Middle-Earth that evil can only corrupt what is and cannot create something new.
Not only are orcs twisted and cruel, but they are also thoroughly authoritarian, especially in the case of the orcs of Mordor. During the chapters following Shelob’s attack on Frodo, Sam overhears a lot of orc-talk, and it is almost always preoccupied with bosses, punishment, secret police, traitors, and so on – orcs here would fit perfectly well in a dystopian story like 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. This is a connection that Tolkien made intentionally – he said once in a letter that his own political leanings were more toward anarchism, as in the ‘abolishion of control.’ The heart of evil, for Tolkien, was the will to dominate other people. But in orcs, we have a people who are dominated and truamatized so thoroughly that they replicate their trauma wherever they go.
We all know of people like that, I think.
Trump Makes Orcs
Tolkien wrote to Christopher in Letter 71:
Yes, I think the orcs as real a creation as anything in ‘realistic’ fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; 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. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se!
To Tolkien, orcs were realistic, much as they have been panned since as irredeemably evil cannon-fodder. I’m not sure about entirely realistic, but if orc is a process, as I believe, then we can see that process at work wherever we look. For example, who could possibly work at a concentration camp that served as a detention center for small children stolen from their asylum-seeking parents?
Orcs, that’s who.
And who is currently flourishing? Who is getting their way? We have a whole, large contingent in the United States of people who seem to mainly take pleasure in other’s suffering and discomfort. We have the vapid, nihilistic cruelty of Internet trolls, waves of rape threats aimed at any woman who dares appear in a science fiction film or comment on…anything, and a President who seems to have been elected solely to tear down various institutions. It is easy to see this as an age of orc-behavior, hurting for the sake of hurting, combined with growing comfort with regard to fear and authoritarianism.
In his refections on the Fourth Age, the so-called Age of Men, Tolkien talked about how he saw a rise in “orc-mischief,” that is, non-orcs behaving in orcish ways. A young cult arises in Gondor decades after the death of King Elessar – one can imagine such a cult arising on 4chan or through Breitbart. Hell, it already has. It’s called the alt-right by people who have forgotten what “Nazi” means.
The story of the Fourth Age never got off the ground for Tolkien, so among other things, we don’t know from his work what can be done about orcs, short of fighting them. This is where the presentation of evil in Middle-Earth is limited, as it is in any story. We only have the stories we have.
Perhaps the question is, what is the torment that has created these particular orcs? Because if I’m right, and if this is a meaningful comparison at all, then ending that torment, whatever it is, might be the way to halt the orc-process.
Another question that I’m thinking through, given the idea that orcs are created by torment, is why are almost all of the people engaging in orc-behavior in our day and age white? Even a cursory glance at American history reveals a panoply of torment aimed at non-whites by whites. Genocide and slavery and exploitation and apartheid. So why are all of these Trump-voting orcs white?
Thoughts on this interpretation of orcs? Of our current situation in the US? What do you think is the torment and its source?