Thursday, May 5, 2011

Are Orcs Monsters?

Much of Wednesday’s discussion was devoted to identifying the characteristics of a “monster” so that they might be combined to yield a definition of monster-hood, or at least a guideline. To do so, we drew upon the descriptions of monsters from Tolkien’s works, Beowulf, and the Story of Sigurd. But little thought was given to whether the entities on the chalk board were indeed all monsters, or, conversely, whether any monsters from these sources were left out of our discussion. So I feel it is appropriate to ask now, are Orcs monsters?

That question might seem unanswerable, after all, our class never truly agreed on a definition of monster by which we might judge them. However, several potential criteria were laid out concerning what Tolkien used to define a monster, and we may try applying each of these in turn. The first is that the monster must be a creature of flesh and blood within the secondary reality of the story. This criterion is obviously met. The others are less clear. Some parties advocated monster as beast, primarily driven by hunger or a warped survival instinct. Another line of speculation concerned monsters as personifications of a vice, sin, or destructive emotions. One requirement seemed to be the bearing of malice towards beauty and good. I will seek to judge Orcs by each of these criteria. The concept of monsters representing natural phenomina was rather quickly dismissed, and the discussion of monstrous historical personalities never addressed. They have been omitted for brevities sake, but by all means sound off in the comments.

For the purposes of this discussion I believe the most revealing passages in the legendarium are those few from the point of view of the Orcs themselves. In The Two Towers we have a pair of such moments, the internal politicking of Merry and Pipin’s captors (Book 3, chapter 3), and Shagrat and Gorbags’ discussion outside Cirith Ungol (Book 4, chapter 10).

These passages reveal a surprising depth in the orcish race, far above the blind hunger of the spiders or the dimwitted desires of Grendel and trolls. For one, the Orcs seem surprisingly well informed about politics, about the strategy of the war and the designs of their masters, more so than the foot soldiers of the free peoples, like Beregond. Granted, we are exposed mainly to captains, but the point stands, the species as a whole is bestial in appearance and manners, but capable of intelligence. Their also appear to be a few (Grishnak, Ugluk, Shagrat) with genuine adherence (though not out of loyalty) to the cause and their master’s plans. The Uruks especially are able to ignore personal desire for rest or food in favor of tactical considerations, though perhaps mostly because their supposed human inheritance has diluted natural orcish natures. We are given very few glimpses, but Orcs even appear to have a culture. They have a fondness for man-flesh, but when Grishnak makes an insinuation of cannibalism it is immediately considered a slur by all in the vicinity, revealing that even Orcs have taboos, in sharp contrast to a creature like Ungoliant, who seeks to consume everything, herself included.

So we may state that Orcs are not animals. Neither, however, are many of our monsters. Characters like Galaraung and Morgoth are clearly too cunning to be lumped in with Shelob. Rather they are considered monstrous because they embody negative traits like greed and pride. Orcs have such sins, but it is not clear they exemplify any particular one. They are fearful, serving mainly out of terror of the punishment of their higher-ups. They are greedy, witness Grishnak searching Merry and Pippin for the supposed “elvish plot”, or the Orcs of Cirith Ungol fighting for Frodo’s mithril coat. But they are not altogether selfish. In both the Hobbit and the Lord of The Rings Orcs from the misty mountains make great treks to take vengeance on the protagonists, at personal risk. The concept of a revenge killing may not be glamorous, but it again belies some form of orcish society and, dare we say it, morality.

Of all the negative emotions, Tolkien singles out envy, spite, malice, as particularly hateful. In Arda, the forces of evil almost always resent their uncorrupted brethren, and this perhaps marks Orcs out as monsters. Quenta Silmarillion, chapter 3 states that Orcs were made “in envy and mockery of the elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes.” The elves have no confirmation this is true, but it is heavily implied. For one, Orcs appear curiously long-lived. Gorbag refers to the “great siege,” presumably the first destruction or Bara-dur at the end of the second age, making him at least 3,000 years old. It appears that Orcs retain the gift of Illuvatar, even in their corrupted state. The Orcs clearly despise their ancestral lineage, both passages I highlighted feature the use of Elvish as a synonym for both dangerous and sneaky, or dishonorable. It is also unquestionable that Orcs take delight in tearing down what others have built, and in sadistic acts, like ‘returning’ the Gondorian POWs to Minis Tirith. But I think this behavior makes them evil, not monstrous, like the malice of Morgoth or Sauron.

The Orcs don’t seem to have much in the way of political aspirations beyond survival. Their goals in the war are twofold, avoid punishment at the hands of their officers, and win spoils, loot yes, but particularly Lebensraum, so that they might free themselves of said officers. It is unclear if Gorbag’s suggestion that Shagrat and some “trusty” lads come with him is out of comradely, or safety in numbers. “Trusty” can certainly not be taken ironically. But it is telling that he thinks little of the conquering and destruction of the free peoples, save as a means to an end, which is living in the twisted orcish version of peace. Orcs do not at least commit the cardinal sin of seeking dominion over the wills of others. They hate the good because it reminds them, on some instinctual level, of what they once were. They hate it because, corrupted as they are, they must hate everything, their masters no less than their enemies. But unlike Sauron, Morgoth, the Numenorians or others, they did not choose to fall. They are perfectly willing to attack the free peoples, but their malice is much more passive than that of their leaders, who wish to enslave the world and rule it.

So it appears we need not say “Ooh Those Aweful Orcs,” nor consider them monsters. As the foot soldiers of the enemy the Orcs are actually considerably humanized, nearly pitiable, while the ultimate judgment is brought against their masters. When so much of the novels is told from the free peoples viewpoint it can be hard to spot the Orc’s ‘good’ side, but Tolkien has clearly worked hard to insert it, and I think developing some of the antagonists as three-dimensional and relatable, while maintaining cosmic forces of evil on top, strengthens the legendarium.

David Gittin


  1. Upon reviewing my post I realized I got rather far off what I intended, but I liked the product enough to go ahead and publish it anyway. I assure everyone that this reflection really didn't start out as a defense of Orcs!

    I started delving into the Two Towers passages purely as a supplement to the class readings, but found there was enough material for a full 1200 words in those alone. (Indeed I cut an entire planned half post about whether Morgoth and Satan were monsters, anyone want to fight over it in the comments?) Sorry to my Istari if this theme wasn't close enough to the week's assignment.

    Also the title really ought to have a question mark in it. It appears I can never make a post without at least one error!

    David Gittin

  2. I think that you are right that the Orcs are not monsters in the sense that Grendel or the dragons are; perhaps they are slaves (as the previous post suggests)? It is interesting, given what we said about Monsters needing a Monster-slayer that the Orcs do not tend to have specific opponents. None of the Orcs whom we meet in person, as it were, are killed by anybody other than other Orcs. I am curious, however, how they can be evil and not monstrous, since what you say seems to suggest that we should pity more so than hate them.


  3. By most accounts, I think orcs would be considered monsters. They are sub-human, cruel, sadistic, filthy, anarchic, and always in opposition to the hero. Of course, there is the matter of what kind of monsters they are. Lederer’s post “The Monsters and the monsters” is useful here. Orcs are usually (m)onsters insofar has they are rarely the arch-villains of the story—an exception would be the role of Azog in the war between the dwarves and the orcs.

    I’m not so sure that the orcs can be pitiable, at least not in the way Gollum can be pitied as a victim. The origins of the orcs are rather vague. They may or may not have been elves originally, but that was back in the 1st Age. Where the seeming endless supply of orcs in the 3rd Age are coming from is anyone’s guess. They can’t all be mutated elves, can they? I would hesitate to assume that the orcs share the same immortality as elves based on a reference to the siege of Mordor. Their knowledge of that event need not be from personal experience, but instead the orcs could tell each other stories about past events just as they tell stories about Shelob.

    In the end, orcs appear to be cruel and vicious because it is in their nature. Even Gandalf does not hesitate to deal out death in judgment regarding orcs, at least minimizing their casualties because they are pitiable pawns never comes up. There does not seem to be any rehab program to rehabilitate them into society. With or without Sauron, they would be prone to desire wanton destruction just for fun.

    Ultimately this is what makes a monster. If you can pity it, if it is redeemable, if its actions can be justified and reasoned, then it is no longer a monster to the one assigning it such status. It becomes a misguided soul or a victim of circumstance or almost human, anything but a monster. We made monsters of the Japanese soldiers in WWII (and they did the same to us). War propagandists on all sides excel at doing this. It makes it easier to kill those on the other side, because that is what we do with monsters. The whole point of destroying the ring was to kill Sauron. Can you imagine the Council of Elrond trying to see the world from Sauron’s point of view so that they could better march on Mordor to convince him of the error of his ways?

    This does raise the question of whether or not there are any true absolute monsters or if we invent them for our purposes.

    -Jason A Banks

  4. Jason, you said that if it is pitiable, it is redeemable. I disagree quite strongly. Although we do not know precisely how the orcs were made from elves, we do know that they are corrupted and bred for a particular purpose. Why wouldn't Sauron have instilled his own malice and cruelty into their nature? Is what was done to them to make their natures thusly their fault?

    There was an experiment a short while ago where scientists discovered that by applying a strong magnet to certain parts of the brain significantly lowered their moral thresholds. People who normally abhorred violence became less troubled by it, or by the idea of hurting someone. Does this changing of their physical nature (their brain function) make them temporarily evil? What if someone were to be stuck like that? Are they now 'monstrous' in some fashion?

    I would say the Orcs, although intelligent, are more beastlike than anything. They might have particular skills but they are 100% slaves to their base impulses. I would almost say it seems genetic. I think monstrousness comes not from the actions or feelings of a person or entity, but from knowing better and willfully and eagerly engaging in hatred, malice, and destruction.

    I think that Saruman is one of the best examples. Treebeard says "A wizard should know better" and he certainly should. He was a good person once, but he fell under Sauron's thrall. True, part of this may have been because of the Palantir, just as Denethor fell into dispair by misjudging the things he saw within it. But Saruman is the head of the Wizards, Saruman the wise. With his wisdom, power, and intelligence, I cannot blame anyone but him for his fall to evil. Furthermore, he is given several choices to help the forces of good, to be redeemed and again and again he spitefully chooses evil. He even destroys the Shire out of no tactical purpose other than spite.

    I feel in order to be Monstrous, at some point, a person or entity must have been able to choose not to be. Morgoth, Sauron, Saruman: they all had the power to be forces for good, and yet refused.

    -Katie M.

  5. Whether orcs constitute Monsters or mere ("mere") evil hinges on the line between the Monstrous and the evil - something that was never fully delineated in class. However, the differing criteria you give in your post - driven by hunger/survival, personification of vice, and malice towards beauty and good - seem, on the whole, to indicate to me the absence of good rather than the rejection of it. So in response to your post, I ask the question - do the orcs actively reject good, or is such an absence in their nature? Unfortunately, I don't know that the question is fully answerable. We never see an orc given a true chance to become or act "good" in the trilogy. The formal explanation of the origin of orcs as twisted Elves seems to indicate a rejection of good - after all, not all Elves gave in to the forces of evil. However, surely all of the orcs we see cannot be twisted Elves. The creation of the Uruk-hai, through the breeding of Orcs and Men, seems to indicate that Orcs can reproduce organically. Even though Orcs are portrayed as possessing a humanoid or near-humanoid level of intelligence, can we truly give them the agency needed to become evil rather than Monstrous if they are born into such a nature? Interesting post.

    Taylor Ehlis

  6. If the orcs are a corruption of the elves, who were made to have faith in Iluvatar, then the orcs are the opposite of the elves, and are therefore evil. If we bring in the discussion of the Numenorean breaking of the ban, what is important is not how we worship, since there are those who argue that human sacrifice would be acceptable if it were to Iluvatar, but to whom our worship is addressed.

    The Orcs, then, are by definition evil. They are diametrically opposed to the elves, and created by Melkor to serve him in war. They may have humanizing elements, but this does not make them good, since their ultimate purpose is for the cause of evil.