Orcs ought to be regarded with a great deal more mystique and intrigue than we grant them. To many of us Orcs and Goblins are strictly sword-fodder, small black and green people of pure evil there to be destroyed with little thought put to the task. Really that does make sense: until we get a bit of their perspective in the Uruk-hai chapter, and later in The Choices of Master Samwise, Orcs truly are only there to be killed. Even in The Hobbit, where things are bit more easy-going, the most insight we gain into their sad little lives is that they are expert diggers and torturers. The problem is then compounded with the films, in which orcs beyond number are slaughtered, and popular fantasy tropes in which, again, orcs are just for fighting and little else. But just below the surface there is a lot to pique our interests, not the least of which being the origins of the fighting Uruk-hai, those monstrously huge orcs employed during the War of the Ring. And it is supposed, if not laid out neatly, that we questers have a hand in their creation.
The Ring-maker Cycle opens, after a clash with Dunlendings, with a thrilling chase. We head into the mountains to catch an orc and then, after he proves horribly strong and sneaky, we must pursue him again into Fangorn forest. This beast of an orc is known to us as Mugash. This impossibly tough fellow just may have been the type of overly strong mutation that Saruman bent to his advantage in creating his warrior race.
‘Alright,’ you say. ‘So there is a mysterious super-breed of them but they’re still just for fighting and dying!’
Au contraire, sassy listener of my imagination. A little insight from Treebeard should give us pause before dismissing these brutes as just that:
‘[Saruman] has taken up with foul folk, with the Orcs. Brm, hoom! Worse than that: he has been doing something to them; something dangerous. For these Isengarders are more like wicked Men. It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun; but Saruman’s Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it. I wonder what he has done? Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men? That would be a black evil!’
This gets into some seriously gnarly stuff. Could Saruman have cracked the code in genetic engineering? Or, worse, did he forcibly mate Orcs and Men? Could Mugash have been his first in this race of orky Winter Soldiers? We’re lead further along a perilous train of thought. Additionally there seem to be two versions, let’s say, of Uruks: those Uruk-hai of Isengard and the Uruks of Mordor. It is never quite made clear how they are related. We do know that Uruk means something like ‘Great’ or ‘High Orc’; they were much larger than their counterparts (almost Man-height!) and more fierce. Did Saruman and Sauron have the same idea? When Saruman teamed up with the Dark Lord was he lent a company or two of these new brutes to tinker with? Setting the Uruks aside, what do we know about the Orcs at all? Again, we turn to Treebeard (thankfully picked up from this essay):
‘Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves.’
Fold this idea over again when Frodo says something similar in The Return of the King:
‘The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them’
The typical deduction from statements like these is that Orcs are Elves, kidnapped and mutilated in the early days after their awakening. This is passingly mentioned in the Silmarillion and repeated in a letter by Tolkien:
In the legends of the Elder Days it is suggested that the Diabolus subjugated and corrupted some of the earliest Elves, before they had ever heard of the ‘gods’, let alone of God.
The tricky thing here is that Treebeard used the term ‘counterfeit’. This does not implicitly mean that Orcs are Elves, but perhaps some other race of creatures made evil by Morgoth of the First Age. The same can be said of Frodo’s quote: the Orcs were a people of their own, perhaps, though ‘ruined and twisted’ by the evil powers. Tolkien even used the word ‘suggested’. I’m still trudging through the History of Middle-earth, but in there it is, apparently, stated plainly that Orcs are not Elves (see the linked essay above). This seems even more confusing when the Silmarillion says that the Orcs had life and multiplied in the manner of the Children (Elves and Men). Were they some kind of higher mammal that Morgoth beat into a twisted version of Elves? And where are all those Orc baby mamas?
(As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that ‘goblin’ and ‘orc’ should not be confused. They are the same, though in many properties the former is used to signify the runtier mountain Orcs. This makes sense as a distinction is made in The Hobbit, but they are the same race. ‘Goblin’ is a Hobbit word, an Englished version of Orc.)
I generally do not enjoy making this my closing point, but I feel it is appropriate here: in the end we can say that some of the mystery lies in Tolkien’s vacillating ideas and lack of definitive canon on the subject. I would suggest, thinking specifically of Grishnákh and Uglúk, that the Orcs were a people Tolkien would have fleshed out more given the time and impetus. There is clearly a culture here, albeit a dark one; Orcs clearly have thought lives and desires, even if they are of plunder. They aren’t mere red shirted animals only existing to prove a heroes valour in battle, but an honest-to-goodness people group in Middle-earth. There is much more left to discover!