Forum: Here Be Orcs

Discussing: Why we like Orcs...or don't

Why we like Orcs...or don't

I know there are other Orc enthusiasts out there, and people with non-canonical opinions of them--what about Orcs, exactly, intrigues you or appeals to you? And why Orcs? This thread is for anyone with non-canonical views (including negative ones) of Orcs--and anyone who's willing to think about what they are before dismissing them as the monstrous Other.



Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't

Oh, great thread! Well, for a start, I’ve always been partial to bad-guys, and to underdog types. The ugly, the villainous, the marred - Orcs fit the bill neatly in their capacity as evil thugs/grunts/minions/cannon-fodder. My first big encounter with them was when I first read the books, back around twelve or thirteen. I don’t know that I thought to myself, “Hmm, I like Orcs,” at the time, but I definitely hung on each rare appearance.

Aside from them being the nasties, they were just the most normal-sounding characters in the books. The speech of the Elves and Men of Middle Earth is elevated, distinguished by archaisms and grand flourishes of speech. It is meant to demonstrate their purity and nobility. However, it also sets them at a remove and to my adolescent mind it robbed them of a certain vibrancy. The most "normal"-talking characters in Tolkien's world are the Hobbits and the Orcs. This was a deliberate choice on his part: he wanted the Hobbits to come across as goodly, wholesome "simple" creatures: colloquial good old boys. With the Orcs, he wanted to depict the more evil side of "simple": mundane crassness and petty viciousness.

Tolkien intended his Orcs to be dreary and dull creatures, but for me, they made for the most charged and enervating reading. They were wicked but they were funny, and I could understand their concerns. They never came off to me as necessarily stupider than anyone else, even though other non-Orcs may have thought or spoken of them that way, and when they talked they were viciously articulate, clearly able to deal in abstract thought, logic and reasoning as well as basic conversation conveying information and emotion.

So those are the (book-based) things that got me started on liking Orcs, even before I knew I did. Simple reasons for a start. I can go on and will, but I'll let someone else have a go.



Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't

I like to see them as other races; there are atypical members in any given group.  Just as there are men and elves who choose to behave badly, why should the Orcs be any different and have those who slink off because they cannot abide the evil?  In my fic, the main character actually befriends and Orc, which does change his character.  And, he is woven through the story at different times in her life.  I think it would be very challenging to write an OOC Orc as a main character.

The weird person inside of me tries to look for the good in everyone; Orcs are no exception.   



Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't

Rous, which is your fiction where the main character befriends an Orc? I don't agree with you necessarily, since we don't meet any orcs that don't want to be evil--but I did feel like I would want to get to know the orcs better. We don't spend more than a few pages with any of them, and to me they seem like interesting characters for two main reasons: (1) despite or perhaps because of the apparent harshness of their life, they are extremely determined and many are very proud of their affiliations and accomplishments. I don't think we're given enough information to fully understand this side of them, even though we see glimpses of it, and it might be interesting to read a story that explained it in more detail. (2) of all the races the Orcs show some of the most unbridled ids--their restraint, at least, appears to be less than that of evil Men. In LOTR the destructive side of the id is emphasized, but what about the life-giving side? I suspect that side is one reason Orcs seem to be able to survive in more hostile environments than most other races, even if they are sometimes the ones that make these environments hostile.

I think the problem of writing an OOC Orc as a main character could be circumvented by showing the Orc in scenes that are based on canon. What is the POV, for example, of the Orc that apparently gave his/her OWN food to Pippin, even though Pippin wasn't even hungry enough to eat the meat?




Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't

>>What is the POV, for example, of the Orc that apparently gave his/her OWN food to Pippin, even though Pippin wasn't even hungry enough to eat the meat?

Nameless Orc: [growl] Urge to kill...rising....

I must admit I like my Orcs evil, but I don't think they are necessarily wholly destructive or void of the "higher feelings" used to differentiate the other races. I think they may be capable of friendship, for instance. I adduce this from wholly negative examples, of course: Gorbag and Shagrat are fellows who've known one another a long time - they squabble but they carry on a fairly articulate conversation without killing each other (that comes later), and they hearken back to old shared memories for a moment of warmth amid the squabbling: "Like old times" and all.

That's not friendship, but it has a rough element of comradery. I think Tolkien's Orcs have something like concept of friendship/loyalty, if only enough to use it as a form of manipulation and backstabbing amongst themselves.



Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't


>>I must admit I like my Orcs evil

Thence we differ. I like 'em not necessarily "good" or redeemable in the elvish sense, but with POVs that are reasonable given the often-very-little information they have and that are, therefore, sympathetic. I don't think that's absolutely inconsistent with canon, but we can have a discussion about it if you would want...

I do think the moments of warmth between Gorbag and Shagrat are interesting little touches, and I suspect they were genuine rather than insincerely manipulative. (What would be the catch to them?) Interesting points.




Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't

Always up for discussion, though I should clarify as "evil" was probably an overstatement on my part.  How about...on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 as Beatific Sainthood and 10 as Monomaniacal Giggling Bastardom, I like a healthy 6 or 7!

That's a little flippant on my part, though, since I like and have liked all kinds of Orcs if they are written well.

Even evil can be sympathetic depending on the way it is written, and whether the Orcs in Tolkien are evil or not, I find them sympathetic even as he wrote them.  That may not have been his intent.  Nonetheless, by presenting them in extended, readily comprehensible terms, discoursing amongst themselves - Ugluk and Grishnakh, Shagrat and Gorbag, Shagrat and Snaga - he makes us privy to their thoughts and concerns, their fears and enmities, their vulnerabilities.  Vulnerable Orcs may sound like wishy-washy word choice on my part, but they really are very vulnerable on these occasions, looking at the context. 

Grishnakh is an enigma with motives and secret knowledge that set him apart from Ugluk and his gang, and he has to walk a very fine line to get what he wants.  We can sense his frustration and anxiety mounting as the chapter progresses, and while our concern is for the hobbits it is possible to empathize with Grishnakh's feelings - certainly the hobbits look to use it to their own benefit.  There's also a tenacity and a bravado about the Uruk-hai, who fight on even when their defeat is certain.  Ugluk in his pride and confidence is able to win respect from us - even Tolkien gives him his due, describing his death at the hands of Eomer, "who dismounted and fought him, sword to sword."  There's something almost noble about him in the end.

Shagrat and Gorbag are certainly not noble: they are soldiers obliged to drudge under the dubious auspices of Mordor, but they have their own problems: they complain about being overworked and underappreciated.  They engage in nostalgic revery, they worry about the future.  They also have to be wary and cautious around one another, and around each other's respective "lads."  Gorbag wants gratification in tormenting Frodo, Shagrat has to act against his own nature to keep him safe.  Later we see Shagrat hurt, badly from the looks of it: "Out of the eastward door Sam could see him now by the parapet, panting, his left claw clenching and unclenching feebly."  Still plugging, though, is old Shagrat.  He doesn't go down willingly and even wounded as he is, is able to evade Sam and scarper with that bundle of Frodo's stuff - aye, and even get it all the way to Lugburz, so that the Mouth of Sauron is able to present it before Aragorn & Co.

So I think a certain level of sympathy of the Orcs can actually be gleaned in the text itself.  Plus, like I said before, they're presented in more down-to-earth language than the Hobbits and the Elves, and that helps immeasurably.



Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't

>>they're presented in more down-to-earth language than the Hobbits and the Elves

That should be "than the humans and the Elves," obviously. Heh.

Something I also like about the Orcs is the terms by which they refer to one another. "Your lads." "Our boys." Perhaps I need to reread, but I don't think any of the human characters ever unbent that far. For all that the Orcs are nasty and horrid to one another, their discourse is more natural and fluid than the good guys, so I take strong exception to Tolkien's statement that Orkish "talking was really reeling off 'records' set in them by Melkor" when by far and away his humans and Elves were the ones who did not talk so much as they "pronounced," as if from scrolls of parchment and vellum.

Grishnakh, arguably the creepiest of Tolkien's Orcs, is also the one who says this line: "I left a fool....but there were some stout fellows with him that are too good to lose. I knew you'd lead them into a mess. I've come to help them." This is much closer to what I was saying before, about "manipulating" an Orkish construction of friendship/loyalty: I mean, we know why he really went back - to see if he couldn't get the hobbits away from Ugluk, to carry out his orders. But he still coaches it in the terminology of concern - he undermines it, but it's there.



Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't

Have you read Tom Shippey? He has some very interesting comments about Orcs (among many other things; he is probably the best Tolkien critic writing) in his two great studies of Tolkien's fiction. In one of them he analyses the passage where the Orcs at Cirith Ungol are discussing Shelob, and points out that they criticise Sam for abandoning Frodo ("regular Elvish trick") while at the same stating that they did exactly the same to one of their comrades who was taken by Shelob, without recognising the applicability of the criticism to their  own conduct. The fact that the Orcs can use, as you put it very well, the "terminology of concern" is meaningless, because they don't act on it.

Evil does not see itself as evil. Never. All those bad fantasy novels with Gods of Evil and self-conscious Servants of Evil? Nonsense, all of them. Look at the greatest public villains of the real world (I'll leave it to you to decide who yours are) and does any of them, however vile their deeds, admit that they are thereby bad people? Not one. It's self-justification all the way. Morgoth and Sauron would not have thought of themselves as evil, and neither did Saruman,  but that doesn't change the fact that they were. Same with the Orcs. I would not consider their style of speech a mark of virtue, but that is a matter of personal taste and custom; I have no difficulties with formal speech so the issue didn't even occur to me, until you mentioned it. Generally, within the confines of the Secondary World ( and indeed the Primary one too), I'm quite willing to judge by deeds not words, when they contradict each other, and by their deeds the Orcs are on the side of evil.

Now whether they are thereby blameworthy as Men, Elves, Hobbits, Ents, Dwarves and Ainur would be, well, that's another question.



Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't

Well, some evil-doers in the real world do consciously pride themselves on being evil, but those generally end up in asylums.

>>Generally, within the confines of the Secondary World (and indeed the Primary one too), I'm quite willing to judge by deeds not words, when they contradict each other, and by their deeds the Orcs are on the side of evil.

Hey, no argument here. I'd say by their words they are as well. When I made that observation about Orcs using the terminology of concern, what I find meaningful is that that such terminology is present in the Orkish worldview to begin with. Grishnakh, when he explains that he came back to help "some stout fellows," is clearly acting with wholly other motivations, but his words signify a capacity for such concepts as loyalty and concern for others - wholly undermined in the example cited, but the interesting thing is that they should even be there to be undermined in the first place. Deduction by negation.

I don't so much consider casual speech a virtue as I consider it advantageous from the perspective of writing and characterization. For me it is just more natural on the ear - whereas the elevation of the Elves and Men distances me as a reader, the Orcs and Hobbits draw me in. As for the "filthy and degraded...squalid" end of things, as Tolkien puts it, that's just a bonus.



Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't

...and now I really want to read Tom Shippey.  I wonder if his work is at my library.



Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't

I'm not that crazy about Orcs because in the canon I don't see a lot of choice on their parts. Easterlings or Dunlanders or Corsairs, at least they're still basically men. Enemies, but assumedly they still have a conscience. But Orcs are always evil. The few Orcs who we see dissatisfied with their lot in life don't want to not be evil, they just don't want some overlord telling them what to do.

And this lack of choice takes away the possibility for dramatic tension. An orc who decides not to rape, pillage, and burn just doesn't feel very orcish to me. That doesn't mean such orcs didn't exist, but that they stray too far from what I see presented in canon for the story to really feel like fanfic.

My $.02, at least.



Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't

Thelauderdale and Anna Wing,

I believe we don't know the orcs well enough to know whether they merely act on their terminology of concern less than other races, or whether they absolutely NEVER act on the terminology of concern. For example, there are no references in canon to how orcs are raised, or what their home life is like. (We only see them fighting.) In canon, I recall that Gorbag and Shagrat do seem to have at least considered rescuing Ufthak from Shelob (they say it's "no use" to interfere with Shelob, which might be true). OK, I'm probably erring on the orcs-aren't-quite-so-evil interpretation of canon, but I'm playing devil's advocate which I enjoy doing.


I'm glad someone who seems to be more canonical has joined our discussion, and I appreciate that you seem to be open-minded enough to read about "why we like orcs." Us orc enthusiasts seem to be a despised tribe, especially by the Elf loving people. I agree with you that in many fanfiction works, orcs are redeemed to the point of unrecognizability. However, I disagree with your assumption that a character who is noticeably "Orkish," e.g. rapacious and destructive, must be unsympathetic. If you read a book such as _The Call of the Wild_, Buck, a sympathetic dog protagonist who learns how to be a wolf over the course of the book, kills a number of other dogs and wolves for personal advancement. The book is a survival story about a character who must deal with a noticeably harsh environment, but so, we can probably assume, is the life of an Orc. One issue of LOTR, I believe, is that it is a different genre where character qualities are evaluated differently. Tolkien's agenda seems to be quite the opposite--its anti-materialistic thread means that qualities such as greed and predatory energy are cut almost no slack.

Re: Orcs' possible lack of choice, despite the fact that we only follow individuals for a few pages and regardless of the philosophical status of fate vs. free will in Middle Earth, Orcs don't seem less complicated than hobbits, say, or elves. Different orcs do seem to have distinct personalities, as was partly explored earlier in this thread, and several dimensions of "Orc" are shown. Remember that this is a book full of flat-as-people-used-to-think-Earth-was characters who are using the same weapons for over 3,000 years. I'm not a fan of the staid, the reclusive, or the resignedly complacent and to me Saruman's blunter, louder, and more openly intense Uruk-hai provide a welcome contrast.

Proud to be a city person, and not to be like those fat and unambitious hicks that Tolkien makes into heroes,



Re: Why we like Orcs...or don't


I'm not that crazy about Orcs because in the canon I don't see a lot of choice on their parts ... Orcs are always evil ... And this lack of choice takes away the possibility for dramatic tension.

This is a different and an interesting reason, though I'm not sure I could ever see Orcs as non-dramatic (heh.)  I think there are other kinds of dramatic tension worth writing/reading about besides that arising from the human internal struggle between good and evil - though I have seen some wonderful stories exploring this conflict from an Orkish point of view, and even a few that could have complimented canon nicely.  There *are* other polarities, though, that can make for interesting exploration - primitive v. modern, restraint v. abandon, group v. individual...and for those who aren't so fond of dualism to begin with, shades-of-gray people rather than pure black-and-white, the nice thing is that Orcs *are* more complicated than we often give them credit.



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