Saturday, October 21, 2017

Of Orcs and Men

In Peter Jackson's film "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," Gothmog (the commander of Sauron's army) declares, "The age of Men is over. The time of the Orc has come!"  Flush from his victory at Osgiliath, the statement would prove to be demonstrably false.  It does beg the question though, "what are orcs exactly and how do they differ from men?"  J.R.R. Tolkien spilt a lot of ink developing races of men, elves and dwarves, but despite being major antagonists orcs only get a vague backstory lacking in details.  According to the Silmarillion, Morgoth (the original big bad) brought orcs into being by capturing elves and through torture/mutilation infused them with malice for all living things including themselves.  It's important to note that Morgoth could not create life so orcs are a purely malignant form of that which they previously were.  It was a great way to create hero fodder, but as he elaborated on them further through a glimpse in a story here or a fragment of a letter there it became less and less clear as to what orcs were really supposed to be.

One of the more confusing aspects of orcs is the numerous ways they can be referred to.  "Goblin" is a synonymous term, as are "urco" and "orch" in their respective eleven dialects.  The dwarves use the word "rukhs," while the wild men call them "gorg√Ľns."  In the Black Speech they are "uruk-hai," literally "orc-folk."  Physically, orcs are described by Tolkien as sallow-skinned, flat-nosed humanoids with slanted/squinty eyes.  Their stature varies from a hobbit to a full-grown human, but with short, thick, crooked legs and bent backs.  This, combined with descriptions of long arms and large hands give the impression that orcs are vaguely simian looking from a distance.  Unlike apes though they fashion their own crude arms/armor and even possess some equally crude healing arts...oh, and they sing.  As for languages, orcs speak a kind of cockney English in addition to a smattering of the Black Speech (which isn't actually their native tongue).

Tolkien suggested in correspondence a number of ideas about orcs; they were made out of slime and heat found in the earth, the were mindless beasts without the influence of a powerful master (such as Melkor, Sauron or Saruman), some were actually half-breeds that basically looked like ugly humans.  The problem with all these "theories" is none of them jive with facts already established in published works.  Couple that with the wording used (which bears more than a passing resemblance to the ways ethnic groups are ostracized or demonized) and things start smelling a bit fishy.  Was Tolkien racist?  It wouldn't surprise if that were true to some degree given how hard it is to find someone who is completely free of bigotry these days, let alone a century ago when Tolkien was in his formative years.  However, even if the answer is a resounding "yes" it only serves to muddle the mystery of orcs even more.

A big problem with much of the fantasy literature that came after Lord of the Rings is copycat authors not thinking very deeply about their influences and source material.  Monolith's Middle-earth video games are no exception.  By attempting to expand on what Tolkien created the pitfalls, plot holes, and problems not only carried over, but in some cases were amplified.  Of course, the well-worn fantasy trope of black versus white, light versus dark or unambiguously good versus irredeemably evil, is worth considering as well.  Remember that Tolkien saw Middle-earth as a precursor to our actual history, a time of myth and legend.  The concept being that divine influence faded over time, followed by magic and finally binary shades morality until things became the world we live in now (with it's various hues of grey); no more good elves, but no more bad orcs either...except that's not how it actually went down.  Again, in the Silmarillion, there are instances of elves doing awful things.  Some of the lesser entities in the pantheon who had a hand in bringing about Middle-earth were also flawed in the way Greco-Roman or Norse gods are.  This serves to only raise further doubts.  If the light did bad things, doesn't that mean the dark could have done some good?

Further adding to feelings of skepticism is the simple fact that we, the audience, don't get to witness (or even hear first-hand accounts of) the lives of orcs.  That said, they are clearly horrible, especially the way they treat each other, but then again how old are most orcs?  If they are derived from elves then they should be immortal, but the oldest one ever mentioned was Azog, who died at the age of 140.  Perhaps the vast majority of orcs are basically deranged children who rarely live long enough to grasp at the reins of maturity.  It appears that orcs, when left to their own devices can form self-sustaining collectives such as those found in the Misty Mountains, Moria, Mount Gundabad and Mount Gram.

Can orcs be redeemed?  Probably not, but since nobody has ever tried it's impossible to say one way or the other.  Maybe Monolith will explore this matter further in DLC for Shadow of War.  Until then though, I don't blame people for casting a critical eye on something that has never really added up.     

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