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.