(Art featuring Onna Kin-breaker from my comic “Tock the Gnome,” my man Lurtz from the Jackson film version of “The Fellowship of the Ring.,” and Butterfly Hero Steven. No official affiliation or copyright infringement intended! Will be finishing this up in color eventually but liked the linework too much not to share! With spruce in Onna’s hand, for ‘hope in adversity.’)
So I’ve been doing some (more) Orc research in my continuing Tolkien obsession, and that – as always – impacts how I manifest them in my own work.
Specifically, I’ve been inhaling the backlog of “By the Bywater” episodes, which is an amazing podcast talking about “all things J.R.R. Tolkien: his work, his inspirations and impact, creative interpretations in other media, languages, lore, ripoffs, parodies, anything we think is interesting!” It is SO chill, and so good, and the people involved – Oriana Schwindt, Jared Pechaček and Ned Raggett – never fail to get me thinking and bring up SO many things I hadn’t heard about, as an (up until recently) more casual fan.
I got to the episode on Orcs recently (YES, they tackled Orcs as a topic. Thank you, brave humans) – “Hella Problematic in So Many Ways” – and I have thoughts.
“But Rachel!” you may cry, “I’m not a fan of ‘Lord of the Riiiiiiings’ Orcs! Why should I care about how they’re portrayed in a franchise I don’t like?”
That would be because without Orcs in Tolkien’s work, we wouldn’t have Orcs anywhere else. Where we’ve come as creatives with them since then is REAL important, but in terms of Story, they showed up in Arda first. Yes, they have inspirational roots beyond that, but I think its important – even beyond a fangirling perspective, yes – to recognize where this fantasy people I love so much came from, in the written-beginning.
So a) here are my notes from listening to the podcast, highlighting the parts that stuck out to me most, and b) my aforementioned thoughts, after.
(Keep in mind my note-taking is kinda…. scattery, and goes from less organized to more organized as they go on, so, yes. Also, I did my best to transcribe things as accurately as I could – apologies in advance for any mistakes, and all emphases are mine.)
From Oriana’s introduction to the topic – “…but it also kind of implies (the idea that they were bred from Men, which Tolkien was playing around with in the 60s) that the Orcs can and should be treated as independent beings that deserve to be treated as though they are *redeemable* and worthy of mercy and that they should not be treated with cruelty. So, Tolkien’s way of sort of squaring the circle is that because the Orcs never ask for mercy, and tend to meet horrifying fates, he goes on to say that the Orcs don’t ask for this mercy because they have been lead to believe that Elves and Men are even crueler than their current masters, Sauron and Morgoth. Which to me, makes them kind of tragic, sort of like how I feel about the average Q-anon believer? So they have this degree of responsibility and culpability, but for sincere believers they’ve been led into this extremely damaging worldview and genuinely fear for their own existence.”
“In the Great War, we were all Orcs.” (Under propaganda, influenced, per Jared’s commentary)
Jared also mentions the moment at the pass of Cirith Ungol, where we hear Shagrat and Gorbag banter, and other interactions between them in the tower, and we as the *reader* are meant to be impacted in our perception of the Orcs. “We get to see them behaving as people… They talk like lower class Britons.”
Oriana – “The Orcs are mostly described in neutral terms. Their appearance is not commented on a whole lot, it’s usually size, or how long their arms are, or occasionally there’s skin color which is usually black but not as we think of it – as in literally the color black. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s not a racist inspiration for their appearance… From a letter that Tolkien wrote in 1958… ‘Why does Zimmerman put beaks and feathers on Orcs? Orcs is not a form of Auks (?), the Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human form seen in Elves and Men,’ they are or were squat, broad, flat nosed, sallow skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes. In fact degraded and repulsive versions of the – to Europeans – least lovely Mongol types.’ That’s a big yikes. That is awful… The inspiration is clearly at least somewhat racist, but the language used to describe them in the text itself is not. It doesn’t quite reflect that.”
Jared – “They are described in fairly bestial terms, they’ve got like fangs and claws, and there is a very unfortunate passage, I think it’s in the Bree section, where they talk about someone being half-Orc because he’s sallow and slant eyed. But that didn’t, when I was a little kid anyway, that didn’t really square with the rest of the text where they were pretty animalistic… I just pictured them as ape-like, and that was it.”
Ned, talking about DnD Orcs that came after as a vector off of Tolkien’s Orcs – “You got sense of various sort of betrayed characters. People were running with any number of different interpretations, but a common thread, I remember there were complaints about this, you had not so much Orcs as Porcs – in other words, Orcs that were portrayed with pig like features, that actually had snouts and sometimes fangs like walking talking boars, if you will.”
(Jared points out that in the Jackson films, they are a lot grosser, Oriana calls that version straight up monsters with very little human about them.)
Jared – “If you make them just full on monstrous the way the Jackson movies do, is that better or worse than dealing with the uncomfortable implications of them having a culture and them being maybe cousins of humans and Elves? How do you solve that problem, or do you just try to ignore it and make it somehow worse, kind of the way the Jackson movies sort of did by creating a culture of monsters?”
(Ned mentions briefly that when Tolkien was growing up and absorbing ideas, the idea of The Yellow Peril was rampant, and that may have impacted his choice that Orcs breed rapidly.)
Ned still – “The Orcs themselves, again, unlike all these other human cultures that are talked about, exist in a very very odd area… it is explicitly militarized culture, from what we see of it, it is a case of – even though it’s militarized – its not necessarily uniform, because you get senses of everyone fighting each other as much as fighting perceived enemies. You get a sense again that there are, you know, female Orcs, what are they?… We have no idea if there is such a thing as a female Orc… This is kinda where we’re at, we’re dealing with a sorta limited viewpoint. And the fact that Tolkien seems to identify so strongly that Orcs themselves are essentially people stuck in a military situation, who hate being there, and are under intense stress and pressure and seem to hate each other as much as (unintelligible). It’s sort of like an anti-esprit-de-corps, and… it was mentioned a little earlier and I think it’s worth bringing up, the idea that Jared pointed out, that Tolkien himself felt like being like an Orc when you were in the military. And he equates a lot of his World War I service with that, about how what he saw around him – you know people, people in the barracks, the talk, the food (Oriana interjects “Orc talk, yeah.”) Yeah! He really sees them on this level, it’s very much him consciously distancing himself from his surroundings and the context he was in. He loathed it, and I think it’s very telling – incredibly telling- that in the Scouring of the Shire when everyone returns and they’re all having that first meal in the new little spot by the bridge… Sam complains ‘All these stupid rules and nothing but a bunch of Orc talk!’ you know. He specifically calls it Orc talk, and he’s been over, he’s experienced it in his own way with his own experiences, and now he is seeing it there. So it’s almost like, you know, are they even separate people in the end? Is this his projection of just, sort of like, this is what happens when you’re forced into this situation? Maybe that’s another way to think about it, I don’t know, but this is another inescapable element… it’s just this derivation and reduction of a very particular human experience, and then it becomes the entirety of a species’ existence.”
Oriana points out that it’s also totalism, they are the main sufferers of the totalitarianism under Sauron – “The Orcs are subject to those totalitarian rulers, and, you know, those totalitarian regimes didn’t spring up first in the East.” (Talking about where they sprung up on our Earth, that is.)
Jared – “If you look at all of the stuff that Orcs are repeatedly condemned for, like Orc mischief as Treebeard repeatedly keeps saying, none of it – as far as I can remember – is cultural exactly, or for their physical characteristics… most of what people complain about them doing is ecological stuff, like cutting down trees, pollution, and that’s all markers of a quote advanced society, like that’s what Western Europe was doing when Tolkien was writing this, and that’s what he was most angry about. So… he gave them all these weird like dog whistley traits, but then, the actual evil that they do is, not racist? It’s just crimes against nature. Which is what Western Europe was perpetrating. It’s so annoying to me that he created this embodiment of everything that he hated and then decided, like, oh, it’s just a trick of geography that they come from the East. It was so disingenuous, I feel, like he could be like ‘No, its not, they’re not *actually* Asian, they just happen to be in the East because that’s where Sauron is,’ and its like no come on dude, don’t do this. You can make your point about ecology without that.”
(Oriana compared Orcs to Gremlins, having just watched those films, and Jared made a joke about an AU where Hobbits were the source of Orcs omg.)
Ned – “…lets talk class… There is no such thing as a fancy speaking Orc. The closest we get to it is someone like the Great Goblin, but even then it’s a little more conditional, but you know all the Orcs that we encounter in the book… everyone’s pretty pissed off pretty much almost all the time, that’s one determining factor, but the other determining factor, and this is also something we see with the Trolls in ‘The Hobbit’ as well, particularly – maybe even more clearly – its sort of a debase/alternate, I don’t wanna just simply say Cockney, I think that’s maybe too reductive, but there is a sense of, you know, they’re not speaking in country dialect, they’re speaking kind of (growls) down there… the type of the thing where the language is aggressive, the tone is aggressive, they’re not speaking in any particular slang that we recognize per se, from various English dialects, but it’s not that far off… and Tolkien knows his language, Tolkien knows his dialects, Tolkien using these is making very conscious choices here. Is it something that, uh, is he arguing that unconsciously? Is he arguing some sort of thing that we see something like – we don’t see the Orcs in cities, having cities per se, there’s Goblin Town but that’s about it. They have fortresses, they have strongholds, etc., you know, miniature cities if you wanna call them that. Minas Morgul if you like, but… it’s this sense of, it’s almost a portrayal of this lingering, simmering fear/projection of what the working classes may be like in a specifically industrial context. That might be the best way to put it, in a very broad sense. But you can’t ignore it I think, I think that’s something that complicates things even further because it’s sorta like, ‘Oh, is that what you think (indistinguishable), huh?’ And where does that come from, and what roots are there? And does that tie in with Tolkien’s own feelings about industrial living versus, you know, this sort of idealized life in the country. You go back to his youth, if you wanna play the biographical card, his fairly comfortableish living when he was a small boy in the English countryside and then he and his brother and his mother have to move more into Birmingham and more into an urban context, and things get crappy and he sees and hears people around him and where do you go with that, you know? I think that is a factor and I think we can’t handwave it, is what I’m really trying to say there.”
Jared points out that we have lower class Hobbits, though, like Sam, so there’s a ‘good lower class’ and a ‘bad lower class’ – “It’s okay to be lower class, as long as you’re gardening… a weird sort of quasi-classism.”
Notes from all three of them on how dangerous it is when you aestheticize a language, which was something Tolkien did as well – Oriana talks about her article for Vox about the creation of languages for TV/movies – “One of the most fascinating things that came up while I was writing this, both in the people I talked to as sources and just in the edit process was the number of people who insisted that, like, Dothraki was meant to sound harsh and guttural because the Dothraki are a more primitive people. And I was like no no! No no, no, no. No no no no no, NO. *No.* It may sound harsh *to you* but that is an entirely subjective criteria, we cannot make… the guy who did Dothraki… he in particular really opened my eyes to that, like, subjectivity, and was like you know, people kept talking to him about the harshness of Dothraki and he was like ‘ it drove me nuts, because a K sound is not inherently harsh, it’s *your* perception of it.’ And it is interesting that Tolkien kind of didn’t really seem to cop to that as well as maybe he should have.”
(OH my goooooosssssh Jirt I am so sorry that Irish grammar was offensive to you. Dying laughing. When I meet you in the afterlife I am only speaking to you in Irish.)
(Shoutout to the shoutouts about the Pompeii graffiti.)
Oriana – (with great emphasis!) “In conclusion, the Orcs are a land of contrasts. That’s, that’s kind of, they are very problematic but also very interesting, like he spent so much time and energy trying to figure out what he had done. Like no reflection on the racism, but a lot of reflection on do they, like, oh no, where does life, where does the soul come from, basically. Never quite figured that out.”
So this is all very…. yes. True. No arguments at all. I am making many hand gestures in the manner of shoving you all over to go listen to this!
And I love that D&D Orcs were mentioned – cause I feel like we hopped from Tolkien Orcs to those Orcs and then into other fantasy media, like “World of Warcraft” – or at least, that was literally my own journey with them. So I guess I’m biased. BUT the racism, whether or not he intended it (….it sounded pretty intentional though wtf Professor?? You were too smart to be saying those things and not realizing what you were saying. Gods) has impacted how they moved into other franchises, etc. From my perspective, having grown up with late 90’s/early 2000’s D&D – which I started playing around the same time that I saw Fellowship for the first time and was thusly introduced to Tolkien – they were The Bad Guys, without a thought. Any half-Orcs that showed up in D&D were assumed to have been born of the worst violence, they were automatically categorized as evil (so freaking glad that’s changed oh my heart), etc etc etc.
Then I started playing WoW, and Orcs there WERE their own people – with their own culture – having retained the tusky goodness of early D&D and now with green skin (I have no idea when the green skin started, someone please chime in if you know! Was it a Warhammer thing?) BUT instead of Asian-inspired racist traits, they get African-tribal-coded in a LOT of ways. So that appropriation, even though it seems like it was better intentioned from whoever designed them for Azeroth, is still…. not great. Especially with The Alliance races of that world being more good-coded, tonally, than The Horde’s races, to which the Orcs belong.
There is of course and pretty good breakdown of the trope of it over on TV Tropes (trying to get my comic on their list of examples, but coding is scary. Computer coding, not the coding I’ve been mentioning so far. Whoops). Which shows how much the reclamation of Orcs as a people, beyond what Jirt set up, is based on tribal/clan-based cultures. Which…. okay, yes, and I am in that camp more or less with the Orcs of “Tock the Gnome” being Viking-inspired. And apparently that’s not a new thing, other takes on them do include Norse inspiration, too. But even though all human cultures were clan/tribal based back in the was was, from an American perspective (since that’s the experience I’m writing from), we seem to associate tribalism with POC cultures first and foremost. So is that still an echo of the racism Jirt built into the Orcs of Arda? Or have we gotten better?
That all goes without talking about the ecology concerns, which…. I am there with you, sir, but ouch. Having the only species in your world that is destroying the natural world with violence and badness be the Orcs, and giving other peoples a pass because they’re doing it too, but in the “good way,” or whatever – since Men and Hobbits and Elves and Dwarves all still take from the land, technically, too – is not a good look on top of the existing racist setup. The way they were going about it was awful – obviously – but once again it seems like a case of These People Exist as An Example, These People Exist as Actual People. Not great, especially since if the Orcs were mutilated into existence from Elves, first, there is INSANE space for commentary there, if you treat them as individuals capable of choice and worthy of respect. Which, obviously, he couldn’t settle on what the Orcs are exactly, so he wasn’t going to go there himself.
But I think we, writing Orc stories now, get a chance to do better in that area. We have to be careful, obviously, with the tribal stuff cause that linkup with nature can go in a bad way too. But if we treat them like their own people, and take care with what inspiration we choose to lean on instead, I think we have a chance to a) really fully treat them as beings in their own right, in the stories we tell, and b) tell a better story about how they impact the world around them, where everyone is called to task about the damage they might do to the world.
(That said…. read “Tock the Gnome,” please! I have a lot of thoughts.)
(And this all goes without mentioning what I think about the connection between Orcs and Ogres and Trolls, inspiration and True Faerie wise, but that I believe is a matter for a different post.)
(…..or again, read “Tock the Gnome” 💚)
Once more, thank you to the By the Bywater team for the work that you’re doing and for creating such a welcoming, relaxed space, for those of us who came into Tolkien fandom via the Jackson films, to dive deeper into his work and world(s). If you haven’t checked them out yet, please do!! I recommend starting from the beginning, but the episodes on Galadriel, Melian (guess who was even MORE Faerie before edits????), Sir Gawain and The Green Knight, Eowyn, fanwork (!!!) and the Lord of the Rings stage musical that didn’t last long (yes, that was a thing. I too was surprised and am so curious now!) are among my favorites so far.
(Heads up that they are very, very Jackson-Hobbit-negative. Like, much hatred. We are gonna disagree on some things after all 😅)
So excited to keep listening, and hope you all enjoy if you check them out, too!