The Misunderstood Orc

Wizards of Coast announced the company would be making changes to orcs, drow and Vistani in future printings of their works. The decision for the Vistani makes sense as they are an analogue for the Romani people and to continue to utilize a bigoted stereotype of a real world people is an ugly blight on the game. The drow… I get it, sort of, I guess. That Drizzt Do’Urden overcame the culture and evil worship and servitude of Lolth shows that the drow choose to be “evil” and so it is culture and not the species. The orc on the other hand, need not be changed in the way I expect it will be.

Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson borrowed a number of elements from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Most of you are aware of the many borrowed inventions and interpretations of Germanic mythology The Professor put into his works which then made their way into Dungeons and Dragons. Like many of D&D’s borrowed monsters and concepts; the orc came into the game with only part of it’s original context.

Orcs are “innately evil” because in Middle Earth, all monsters are abominations. Melkor creates many monsters including werewolves, dragons, balrogs and orcs as mockeries and adversaries of the children of Iluvator . Many of these monsters are fallen maia placed into a physical form. They are demons in the Christian sense of the word; fallen angels. Tolkien, it is not widely known, created much of Middle Earth not with certainty but like the way folklore and mythology emerge as an iterative process over centuries. There are different versions of the orc origin story. Tolkien changed different parts of the greater story of Middle Earth many times over the years and the orc was no different.

In one instance orcs are creations of Morgoth from “heat and slimes” in another they are captured elves tortured and turned to evil purposes. How ever Melkor created orcs, he did with the intention of mocking Iluvater and creating slaves and soldiers to do his will. It is clear that in Middle Earth, they are evil by nature not by choice. Tolkien’s orcs only know hatred.

One of the few areas of broad agreement by scholars in Medieval lit studies is that monsters in early stories were there not merely as an entertaining foe for heroes to fight. They represent the “sins” of humanity such as greed, cruelty, murder and wanton destruction. In ancient myth of Greeks and Romans, which Tolkien was very familiar with, monsters were manifestations of that which society rejected. Monsters are a story telling tool to express what we are not. It is the culture saying, “We don’t behave like this.”

Obviously, in the real world, there are no inherently evil people. We all carry the potential for good an evil within us. People chose evil and often the people committing evil will believe that what they are doing is the right thing. The evil doer may rationalize their appalling acts as following orders, serving God, doing what is necessary, or protecting a beloved institution or person. Tolkien, who witnessed the horrors of WWI, was well aware of this. In the following quote, Tolkien expresses to his son that he felt there were “orcs” on both sides of WWII.

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.

Letter from JRR Tolkien to his son Christopher during WWII

In story telling, inherent evil is a tool that a storyteller can use to create a metaphorical foe to compare to the good of the heroic protagonist. It allows the storyteller to take a stand, separate out and make clear what is acceptable behavior and what is not. In modern fiction, this is rare. The audience has become disinterested in the purely heroic protagonist fighting the purely evil monster. Because Tolkien was intentionally drawing on the old mythic structures and formulas, orcs are just plain evil. Full stop.

The inclusion of the orc in the original version of the game, in my opinion, is because players were interest in fighting the same monsters as the heroes in The Lord of the Rings. Gary and Dave were bowing to “the rule of cool.” This is a legitimate function for orcs and other monsters. Tolkien himself mentioned in his lecture The Monsters and The Critics that monsters in mythic literature served as the “old infantry” ready for the slaughter by the heroes of myth and legend.

In the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons monster manual, Gary introduced the idea that orcs had females and “children.”Gary compounded the problem, which has been retained in newer editions of the game, by writing half-orcs as a playable character race. It isn’t particularly clear how the orc numbers grew in Tolkien’s stories. He mainly used the word “multiplied” to describe how orc numbers grew and there is never a description of orc children or females so far as I am aware. There is only one instance I know of where an orc is given a parentage. The orc Bolg who was the son of Azog. Both were bitter enemies of the dwarves. Orc children or half orc heroes never appears in Tolkien’s work. There speculations in The Lord of the Rings that Saruman has somehow mixed orcs and men but this was considered to be evil.

In the 5E monster manual, orcs are created by Gruumsh an evil god that destroys. According to the current canon, Gruumsh created the orcs to perform the task of destruction and murder. They are monsters in the classic sense of the word. However they retain the “naturalism” of having offspring born of sexual reproduction. I have written how this can create issues in a past blog. This muddies the water a bit by suggesting the possibility that the maybe the orc isn’t inherently evil.

I don’t know that Wizards of the Coast will do with the orc. Maybe they will change how they describe orc “culture” but keep the basic concept of the orc the same. Perhaps they will decide, as was suggested in their statement, that orcs are “people” and not inherently evil. Perhaps they will decide that orcs merely possess a culture which venerates evil but the individual orc could be reformed and nurtured into goodness. We’ll have to wait and see.

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