Of Orcs: Part I – Origins

Those who listened to Episode 111 of Cardboard of the Rings heard my call for guest authors at Master of Lore and some ready heroes have decided to “heed the dream”. Today I am pleased to welcome Steve A. who long-time members of the Lord of the Rings LCG community will know as Vardaen. In his first article, the Vman goes deep into the twisted designs of Mordor and Isengard to explore the most common enemy of the Free Peoples in the Middle-earth, the Orcs. Or are they Goblins? Who are these seemingly indefatigable creatures and where did they come from? Take it away Vardaen!

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“Orc Ranger” by Diego Gisbert Llorens

Orcs, Goblins, Yrch, Hobgoblin, Uruk-Hai, Half-orcs and Goblin-men

Aragorn looked on the slain, and he said: ‘Here lie many that are not folk of Mordor. Some are from the North, from the Misty Mountains, if I know anything of Orcs…. And here are others strange to me.’….

There were four goblin-soldiers of greater stature, swart, slant-eyed, with thick legs and large hands. They were armed with short broad-bladed swords, not with the curved scimitars usual with Orcs: and they had bows of yew, in length and shape like the bows of Men. Upon their shields they bore a strange device: a small white hand in the centre of a black field; on the front of their iron helms was set an S-rune, wrought of some white metal….

-The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter 1, “The Departure of Boromir”

Everyone knows what an Orc is right? When you hear that word you can picture that foul corrupted creature with jagged blade in hand and mismatched armor sitting squat and ready for war in the dark licking blood from his blade. But what is an Orc really? More importantly what is an Orc in Middle-earth? They are certainly the most common foe of the Free Peoples of Middle-earth and have been involved in just about every major battle since the First Age. Yet there is a great deal of confusion and uncertainty about what they really are, even from Professor Tolkien himself. Put on your mail hauberk and your dented helm, and like Frodo and Samwise, let’s march a few leagues in the shadow of our enemy so we can get to know them a little better.

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“The Uruk-Hai” by John Howe (2003)

What is an “Orc”?

The first stop on our long march among the Orcs is to first understand the word. Tolkien loved language and words and often used a dozen different words in different languages to describe the same thing. Tolkien used the words “Orc” and “Goblin” interchangeably. We see “Goblin” primarily used in The Hobbit, but we find it in the The Lord of the Rings as well where it is synonymous with “Orc”. Why the two words, and what about “Hobgoblin” that we also see in The Hobbit?

An entire article could be written about the etymology of the various names. In simple terms “Orc” was an Old English term, and “Goblin” an English word. Either were terms used by various folks in Middle-earth, unless you were speaking a language other than Westron, then perhaps you used orch, or yrch, or urko, or uruk or Rukhs or gorgûn although the linguistic complications of our dear philology professor’s creation are a bit over my head. Suffice it to say that all these things are basically the same creature with small variations generally dealing with size or strength.

[T]he race of uruks, black Orcs of great strength, first appeared out of Mordor, and in 2475 they swept across Ithilien…

The Return of the King, Appendix A

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“Orc Assault” by Darek Zabrocki

In our game we see the developers, right from core box, latch on to this simple fact that all of these things are the same. The Goblin Sniper from the core set has both the Goblin trait and the Orc trait. It may be a bit redundant, but otherwise it’s perfectly accurate. The trend of double traits has carried on all the way through the game even into the Sands of Harad box set where we see our enemies having the Uruk trait and the Orc trait side by side.

Orcs Goblins Uruks LOTR LCG

Where things start to get more complicated is when we bring up Half-orcs, Goblin-men and Uruk-hai. We can get to those later on, let’s not be hasty as Treebeard would warn us and as we will see later the old Ent knows a thing or two about Orcs.

So where do Orcs come from?

What are they made of, and do they really pop out of the ground in slime pods as we saw in the Peter Jackson films? The answer to where they come from can be a difficult one. Tolkien himself wrestled with the origins of Orcs late in his life. In the end however we have to narrow our investigation into the lore to that which is published and established in the legendarium, and look at the musing and debates of Tolkien’s later in his life as an interesting exercise in “What If?” With that in mind we turn then to The Silmarillion where everything is very neatly written out for us:

Yet this is held true by the wise of Eressëa, that all those of the Quendi who came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes. For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar; and naught that had life of its own, nor the semblance of life, could ever Melkor make since his rebellion in the Ainulindalë before the Beginning: so say the wise. And deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathed the Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery. This it may be was the vilest deed of Melkor, and the most hateful to Ilúvatar.

The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 3, “Of The Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor”

It is important to pause here and bring up the fact that none of the Valar could create true sentient life without Ilúvatar‘s permission and power. Before Orcs, Men, Elves or Ents were the Khazad, the dwarves of Aulë. Aulë, one of the Valar in his love for Ilúvatar, and a desire to teach and love a creature of his own crafted the Fathers of the Dwarves. These however were only shells of life unable to act and think on their own until Ilúvatar granted Aulë’s desire and gave them true life and then set them to awaken in the world after the First Born Eldar.

 Even as I gave being to the thoughts of the Ainur at the beginning of the World, so now I have taken up thy desire and given to it a place therein; but in no other way will I amend thy handiwork, and as thou hast made it, so shall it be. But I will not suffer this: that these should come before the Firstborn of my design, nor that thy impatience should be rewarded. They shall sleep now in the darkness under stone, and shall not come forth until the Firstborn have awakened upon Earth; and until that time thou and they shall wait, though long it seem. But when the time comes I will awaken them, and they shall be to thee as children; and often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice.’

– The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 2, “Of Aulë and Yavanna”

tn-aule_the_destroyerThis is a strong contrast between how Aulë’s love for Ilúvatar brings forth the dwarves and Melkor’s hate for Ilúvatar brings for the the Orcs. For indeed the Eldar were Ilúvatar’s children, and in Melkor’s spite and hate and malice he took that which was beautiful and twisted it and corrupted it into something terrible. It is said that this act alone, of turning elves to Orcs was the most vilest of deeds Melkor ever did, and he did some really vile deeds.

So we know that Orcs came from captured elves, primarily from the Avari of the first age before Oromë came to them near the shores of Lake Cuiviénen. 

So it came to pass, some years ere the coming of Oromë, that if any of the Elves strayed far abroad, alone or few together, they would often vanish, and never return; and the Quendi said that the Hunter had caught them, and they were afraid.

– The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, Chapter 3, “Of The Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor”

During the migration of the Eldar from east to west Melkor had plenty of time to breed them before the Noldor would return or any of his wars in Beleriand would begin. We must presume he captured both male and female elves for we were told “For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar”, and since we know the elves procreate in a traditional sexual manner that so do Orcs. They aren’t hatched from slime pool like Peter Jackson might have us believe.

morgul_tracker

“Morgul Tracker” by Yigit Koroglu

So that brings up the question about female orcs. Where are there? How come we never see them? We have established that there must be female orcs to birth little baby orcs. It’s possible that those female Orcs are kept as near prisoners in the Orc-homes pregnant at a near constant rate in order to have the sheer number of Orcs throughout the ages as we have. It’s also possible that we simply don’t realize that in the armies and hordes of orcs that female orcs are present. We know from Gimli that dwarf women are nearly indistinguishable from dwarf men so could it not be the same for Orcs?

They are in voice and appearance, and in garb if they must go on a journey, so like to the dwarf-men that the eyes and ears of other peoples cannot tell them apart.

– The Return of the King, Appendix A, “Annals of the Kings and Rulers: Durin’s Folk”

However far more likely is that Tolkien himself simply didn’t write about Orc women. He rarely wrote of women of the Free People in the novels and only a handful of women appear the entire text of the story. So what are the likely chances he would write about female Orcs? He himself admits to this fact in a letter in 1963 which came up for sale in 2002 on the subject. Tolkien 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.”Tolkien Letter 1963

The Horrors of Saruman

With all of this in mind we can now turn our attention to another form that our foes have taken and one that stumped Aragorn when he came on them.

‘But these creatures of Isengard, these half-orcs and goblin-men that the foul craft of Saruman has bred, they will not quail at the sun,’ said Gamling.

– The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter 7, “Helm’s Deep”

Let’s connect the dots. Orcs came from Elves, and procreate after the fashion of Elves. We know that Men and Elves are compatible with one another, (Hi Elrond!), so then by extension Men and Orcs are compatible with one another. Treebeard, now having time to think things over is a good source of information on the matter of these Half-orcs and Goblin-men out of Isengard.

‘I think that I now understand what [Saruman] is up to. He is plotting to become a Power. … He 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!’

– The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”

dec735d053b949adc66d39df3f212ba5-lord-of-the-rings-the-lord

Where did I come from?

Treebeard names this deed of Saruman “a black evil”, and truly it is the ultimate fall for the Istari. Melkor’s creation of the orcs from elves “was the vilest deed” he performed, and here Saruman has done the same with Men. We get into some grim territory here, just how does Saruman breed Men and Orcs together. It seems safe to say, not willingly, for it means either men are mating with female orcs, or orcs are mating with women. Either way it seems unlikely to be a thing of mutual consent. This seems the clearest reason behind the New Line Cinema’s explanation of where the Uruk-Hai of Isengard come from and why we see them pop out of slime pods as if they were Orks from Warhammer40K.

In our beloved game we have no characters, enemy or allies with the Half-Orc, Goblin-man, or even Half-Eleven trait. Even the aforementioned Elrond is only listed as Noldor. The one character that seems most likely to have received the Half-Orc trait, our Squint-Eyed Southerner, is only given the trait of Spy. We do of course have our Murderous Johnny Goblin-fingers but I think it’s safe to rule him out as a part of this conversation, even if he killed those people in Bree (its ALWAYS Johnny!).

Screen Shot 2017-12-20 at 6.25.37 AM

The mixed races of Middle-earth?

To wrap up this first part then, a great deal of debate still surrounds the origins of the Orcs, and even Professor Tolkien himself had questions about their source and creation late in his life. Various theories and examinations of the detailed words used in the origin stories exist. For another exploration on this top you can look no further than this very blog. The Grey Company‘s Derek, aka shipwreck, wrote a Hasty Stroke article about everyone’s favorite Uruk prisoner Mugash and comes to some slightly different conclusions than I have.

ghulat_by_diegogisbertllorens-d6c84ll

“Ghulat” by Diego Gisbert Llorens

In Part 2 I hope to explore a day in the life of an Orc. Are they evil to the core, or can they be redeemed? What happens to an Orc after death, and just how long might they live? Hopefully, the answer to that question is no more than a round or two in your games of Lord of the Rings LCG. Thanks for reading!

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7 comments

  1. Thanks for a great post, I’ve really enjoyed this and look forward to part 2.

  2. Nice work, Vardaen.

  3. Thank you all for the kind words and encouragement.

  4. Tonskillitis · · Reply

    A thought-provoking piece, Vardaen. It seems to me that Tolkien might have started out with a fairly underdeveloped concept of the Orcs as a race – where they represented some sort of evil antithesis to the peace-loving hobbits. While they may have started out like this, through the process of realising this epic piece of literature, Tolkien seems to develop the beginnings of an Orcish culture and this leads for him, almost inspite of himself, to begin to empathise with them. I think our beloved card game takes a less sympathetic view of Orcs – see the Weather Hills quest stage 2
    (http://hallofbeorn.com/LotR/Scenarios/The-Weather-Hills). They seem to firmly inhabit the role of generic bad guys and give us little compunction for massacring great hordes of them. Unfortunately, I’m not expecting the Orc player cards to reach our game for a few cycles yet!

    1. Cornered Animals 😔

    2. You certainly aren’t wrong, in the beginning of Tolkien’s works they aren’t much more than a foe for our heroes to fight. They don’t receive much in the way of development or culture or history. I look a bit into life as a Orc in Part 2 which I just finished up. One thing to note, which I didn’t in either piece, is that the Orcs don’t have a language of their own. And if there is one thing Tolkien loved it was language and using language to develop his cultures. By leaving out a language for them, or putting no effort into making a language for them, he show his lack of interest for their culture. By the end of his life the orcs go through many revisions of origins, even to the point of possibly thinking of them as actual Animals in the traditional sense corrupted by Morgoth and ‘awakened’ in some way. However, these speculations are just that, speculations and we have to use the published works as canon.

  5. Pretty damn interesting

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