CRITICAL ESSAY - ON THE ORIGINS AND NATURE OF ORCS
“The origin of Orcs is a matter of debate”. Indeed it is. The question of the nature and origins of Orcs was something that Tolkien never truly settled, even to himself. His thoughts on the subject are contradictory and scattered throughout his published writings. This essay proposes a possible resolution, based on the existing materials found in his works, including his letters, and the various writings scattered through the twelve volumes of the History of Middle-Earth (‘HoME’).
Origins of Orcs
What were Orcs and where did they come from? In terms of their physical forms they were clearly living, material beings (“For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children on Ilúvatar” - Silmarillion “Of the Coming of the Elves p 50), not disembodied or self-embodied spirits of evil like Sauron and the Balrogs. In LOTR they are shown as having volition, self-awareness, self-interest and definite personalities. At first sight therefore, they are simply a sapient species on the side of evil.
But the number of sapient species in Middle-Earth is strictly limited, as are the possibilities for their origins. They do not arise by themselves, but only at the will of Eru, the One. Elves and Men (and their evolutionary variant Hobbits) were made by Eru. Dwarves were made by the Vala Aulë, and, as it were, adopted by Eru. Ents were, according to the Silmarillion and a suggestion in the Letters (no. 247), made at the request of the Vala Yavanna, after her husband Aulë’s adventure with the Dwarves. They were “either souls sent to inhabit trees, or else that slowly took the likeness of trees owing to their inborn love of trees.” Other beings such as talking eagles and ravens, the hound Huan, the werewolf Draugluin, the vampire bat Thuringwethil and Shelob the spider are clearly embodied Maiar ie lesser divine spirits of the same order as the Valar. Indeed, this is explicitly said of Shelob (“an evil thing in spider-form” ‘The Lord of the Rings:The Two Towers’ Book Four, Ch IX Shelob’s Lair).
So, who made the Orcs? “Morgoth” is the obvious answer. But Evil in Middle-earth is barren. The Valar could create life, as Yavanna did, but they could not create independent, intelligent life. Tolkien said of Aulë, “He had only one life, his own derived from the One, and could at most only distribute it.” (Letters no 212.)
Morgoth, having fallen, could not even do that. He “was impotent to produce any living thing, but skilled in the corruption of things that did not proceed from himself(HoME X, MR p417). Tolkien does not use the word “created” in respect of Orcs. Orcs were not evil in origin (Letters no 269); they were bred, “in envy and mockery of Elves” (Silmarillion “Of the Coming of the Elves p 50)
Therefore Orcs had to have been derived from some pre-existing species. Early suggestions by Tolkien that they were made of stone, slime or hatred may be treated as metaphorical, rather than biologically serious propositions. In view of their known characteristics - mortality, rapid breeding and significant variability in size and appearance - the logical source-species for Orcs would be Men. Tolkien indeed took this position at one point(HoME X, MR p416). He was then also taking into consideration the self-will and rebellion of which Orcs were certainly capable, and treating it as evidence of independent volition. “But if he [Morgoth] had indeed attempted to make creatures of his own in imitation or mockery of the Incarnates, he would, like Aulë, only have succeeded in producing puppets...But the Orcs were not of this kind...” (HoME X, MR p417)
. At that point, Tolkien was interpreting their behaviour as “the corruption of independent wills” (HoME X, MR p417),
notwithstanding their servitude to Morgoth’s will. In his letters he described Orcs as”rational incarnate creatures, though horribly corrupted, if no more so than many Men to be met today.”(Letters no153).
However, a genetic contribution by Elves is also clearly envisaged in many texts. According to the Silmarillion, Orcs were known to the Eldar well before the emergence of Men. There are hints that they were already known to the Eldar at the time of the Great Journey. They were certainly known in Beleriand before the return of the Noldor, and suspected then by the Sindar to be corrupted Avari. The earliest Orcs at least must therefore have been derived physically from Elves, there having been no other species of Children available at the time.
There is no indication that Orcs as a species were indefinitely longaeval ie “immortal” as they would be if they were of Elvish origin. However, Tolkien did note the possibility of “an Elvish strain in the Orcs. These may then even have been mated with beasts...and later Men. Their life-span would be diminished. And dying they would go to Mandos and be held in prison till the End.” (‘Orcs’ HoME X, MR p409)
This appears to conceive of corrupted Elves being kept as long-lived breeding stock to produce legions of mortal descendants. That would have been technically possible, as can be seen from the line of the Princes of Dol Amroth, who descended from the Silvan Elf Mithrellas, and who were indubitably mortal. There is no record of Mithrellas’ children being offered the choice of the peredhil. It is also consistent with the notion, referred to below, that the longevity of the Elves was a function of their spirits, not their bodies.
It is theoretically possible that there was also some Dwarvish element in Orcs, but it seems unlikely, given Tolkien’s remarks on the stubborn and obdurate nature of dwarves, nor am I aware of it having been proposed by Tolkien. “Dwarvish” characteristics of Orcs, such as their preference for caves and tunnels can plausibly be explained by their fear and loathing of the light of Sun and Moon. Tolkien did conceive of the possibility that there was a strain of Morgoth’s corrupted Maiar in Orcs as well; this would have been a negative equivalent of Melian’s contribution to the Elvish and Mortal species.
Orcs and Fëar
The idea that the Orcs were descendants of corrupted Elves and Men runs into difficulties with Tolkien’s dualist conception of these species’ natures. Rather than conceiving of mind as an emergent property of the physical brain, he took the position, which was also consistent with his personal religious beliefs, that there was some part of an Elf or Man (or Dwarf) that was not related to, or dependent upon the body. “Body (hröa) and spirit ( fëa) are integrated” (Letters no156 pg 205 footnote)
and both were necessary for an incarnate being to be complete, but hröar were formed from the (Marred) material substance of Arda, while fëar were conceived of as coming from outside the world, as the direct gift of Eru to the Children of Eru, Elves and Men (and adopted Children, Dwarves).
Tolkien asked himself, “Would Eru provide fëar for such creatures?
....and answered, not for Orcs. (HoME X, MR p409)” In his letters (Letters no153), he did consider it possible that Eru would have tolerated the making of the Orcs. However, if Orcs were to be considered Incarnates ie ensouled beings, the birth of each new Orc, would have required more than toleration. The descendants of Elves and Men, however corrupted, would still have been at bottom, Elves and Men, and each generation born would therefore have to receive its souls from Eru on an ongoing basis.
That would imply conscious co-operation by the Creator in perpetuating the perversion of the Children. This logical but abhorrent conclusion may have influenced Tolkien to reconsider his views. While individual Elves could undoubtedly be twisted and corrupted by torture (Tolkien speaks of the “soul-body structure” being “so maimed that it affects the mind and will” (Letters no 246 pg 326 Houghton Mifflin ed 1981).), in a separate essay Tolkien suggested that Morgoth did not have the power to make such changes heritable. ,i>“It also seems clear ... that though Melkor could utterly corrupt and ruin individuals, it is not possible to contemplate his absolute perversion of a whole people or group of peoples, and his making that state heritable....This latter must (if a fact) be an act of Eru.” (HoME X, MR pg409).,/i>
Morgoth was clearly capable of corrupting and twisting simpler, non-sapient life of the sort created by his coëval Yavanna; not merely individuals, but whole species ie he could make changes at the genetic level. The limitation upon Morgoth’s power that Tolkein contemplated in respect to Elves and Men must therefore have been related to their special status as direct creations of Eru.
His conclusion on that occasion was that ,“Orcs are beasts of humanised shape...Their “talking” was really reeling off ‘records’ set in them by Melkor.... “the wills of Orcs and Balrogs etc. are part of Melkor’s power “dispersed”.....Orcs are beasts and Balrogs corrupted Maiar. Also (n.b.) Morgoth not Sauron is the source of Orc-wills....Orcs can rebel against him (Sauron) with losing their irremediable allegiance to evil (Morgoth).”
Orcish self-will and rebellion were therefore in this conception not indications of free and independent will. Instead, they were merely reflections of the original self-will and rebelliousness of their animator, Morgoth.
Contradictions and conclusions
It can be seen from the above that there is textual evidence both ways on the nature of Orcs, and that this confusion reflects Tolkien’s own permanently unresolved uncertainty. How to reconcile the origins of Orcs in Elves and Men, with their characterisation as soulless puppets of Morgoth? There are a number of elements that may be taken into account in constructing a satisfying synthesis.
First: Men and Elves are one species.
In his letters, Tolkien noted the obvious, that “Elves and Men are evidently in biological terms one race, or they could not breed and produce fertile offspring - even as a rare event....”(Letters no153)
. The difference was therefore in the fëar, not the hröar. The fëar of elves were designed to remain in Arda until the end of time, and were therefore “tenacious therefore of life.....protecting their bodies from many ills and assaults (such as disease), and healing them swiftly of injuries, so that they recovered from wounds that would have proved fatal to men.” (‘Laws and Customs Among the Eldar’ HoME X, MR page 218).
The fëar of Men on the other hand was intended to depart from Arda after a short interval, and was therefore much less integrated with the hröar, making the bodies of Men prone to general breakdown, both by injury and by disease, even before death.
Second: The fëa was separate and separable from the living hröa
The fëar, whether of Elves or Men, was not just a vital spark. It was the source of personality and selfhood, rather than merely the life of the body. Tolkien did consider the possibility of a living hröa without a fëa. It resembled a zombie: “a witless body, not even a beast but a monster...” (‘Aman and Mortal Men’ MR HoME X - pg431).
He also conceived of the possibility that disembodied spirits could take over the bodies of the living. “For one of the hungry Houseless, if it is admitted to the friendship of the Living, may seek to eject the fëa from its body...Or the Houseless may plead for shelter, and if it is admitted, then it will seek to enslave its host and use both his will and his body for its own purposes.” (‘Laws and Customs Among the Eldar’ HoME X, MR page 224).
The living body was therefore clearly imagined as being separable from, though normally joined to, its fëa.
Third: Morgoth’s power was spread though everything material in Middle-earth, including living things like plants and animals.
The Marring of Arda dispersed and infiltrated Morgoth’s power through every atom of matter in Middle-earth including his agents and slaves. Tolkien noted that “One of the reasons for his self-weakening is that he has given to his “creatures”, Orcs, Balrogs etc. power of recuperation and multiplication...Part of his native creative power has gone out into making an independent evil growth out of his control.” (‘Melkor Morgoth’ HoME X, MR 390)
. This is not inconsistent with the position that the Orcs were essentially puppets. “Their spirit is one of hate. But hate is non-coöperative (except under direct fear). Hence the rebellions, mutinies etc when Morgoth seems far off.” (HoME X, MR pg409)
Taking all the above elements together, I propose that Morgoth, “the mightiest of all dwellers in Eä” should have been perfectly able to drive the fëar from the hroär by torture, and then to use the living, but mindless flesh left behind. The untenanted bodies could have been kept alive, and would still have been fertile. In the absence of the fëar, the distinction between Elves and Men would effectively have been erased, though presumably Elvish bodies would have been in rather better condition than those of Men. Morgoth could then have bred from them in the normal way.
Alternatively, he could have done the equivalent of cloning them from tissue samples, whether from the mindless hroär, or from flesh taken from live, whole Elves or Men (such as the hand that Maedhros son of Fëanor left behind him when he was rescued from Thangorodrim). Either way, the results would have been fertile, mortal and in the terms of Tolkien’s universe, soulless. Other strains, such as those from the corrupted Maiar, could have been incorporated into the mix through procreation between the Orcs and embodied Maiar. Adding animal strains would also have been possible, though probably not through sexual reproduction. Direct genetic engineering would have been necessary.
Either way, Morgoth’s will would then be dispersed among each of them as their basic, as it were, operating instructions. Thus the proposal that Orcs were essentially his puppets could also be retained.
In conclusion, my proposals concerning the nature of Orcs may be summed up as follows:
• They are living, physical beings.
• They are fertile.
• They originate genetically from Elves and Men, with possible contributions from Maiar, Dwarves and animals as well.
• They do not have souls.
• Their wills and actions derive from Morgoth.
• They are not directly descended from Elves and Men considered as whole, incarnate beings ie those in whom fëar and hroär are properly integrated. Instead they were derived from the physical, genetic material of Elves and Men, either from hroär from which the fëar had been driven, or from tissue samples taken from living Elves and Men.
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