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Tolkien Essays

Thoughtful exploration and exposition of Tolkien's Legendarium


In my opinion, there are few ways that Tolkien wrote himself into a corner more than with the Orcs. Let’s take a look at some facts, questions, and misconceptions about this enigmatic group.

Melkor had his Balrogs and Sauron has his Nazgûl, but every evil overlord needs an army of mooks for the intrepid heroes to mow down by the dozen. For the forces of evil in Tolkien’s Legendarium, that role is played by the Orcs. But for a world as well-written and well-fleshed-out as Middle-Earth, there’s surprisingly little actual information about these creatures, at least in the works published by JRR Tolkien directly.

Let’s answer some questions and find out what we do know!

What is the difference between Orcs and Goblins?

In The Hobbit, the unfortunate Company meet some rather nasty creatures dwelling in the Misty Mountains. Tolkien generally calls these creatures goblins, though the word “orc” does show up a couple of times. Most notably, one of the swords found in the troll horde is called Orcrist, translated as Goblin-cleaver.

This translation might be the first hint of what Tolkien explicitly states in the author’s note found in later editions of the text (I have not been able to determine exactly which version of the text received this note; I suspect it was either the second edition in 1951 (which he also edited to bring the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter more in line with the story we learn in The Lord of the Rings) or the third edition published in 1966 (the same year the first American edition came out, published by Ballantine Books)):

Orc is not an English word. It occurs in one or two places but is usually translated goblin (or hobgoblin for the larger kinds). Orc is the hobbits’ form of the name given at that time to these creatures…

JRR Tolkien, Author’s Note, The Hobbit

The name Orc is presumably the Westron version of the Sindarin Orch, the word the Elves use to describe those servants of Melkor.

There are some passages which can give some confusion, but ultimately the answer is that there is no difference between Orcs and goblins. The two words refer to the same creature.

What is the difference between Orcs and Uruks?

There are Orcs, very many of them….And some are large and evil: black Uruks of Mordor.

JRR Tolkien, Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Bridge of Khazad-dûm”

In The Lord of the Rings, there are a number of cases where regular Orcs (squat, bowlegged, small) are differentiated from Uruks.

At a glance, this seems like a similar case to the above. Uruk, after all, is simply the word for Orc in the Black Speech used in Mordor. But the text does imply a qualitative difference between your bog-standard Orc of the Misty Mountains and the Orcs that come from Mordor.

The logical inference is that Sauron has been improving on the Orcs created by Melkor, and the ones he’s cranking out of Mordor in the Third Age are harder, better, faster, stronger versions of the basic Orc formula.

In the last years of Denethor I the race of uruks, black Orcs of great strength, first appeared out of Mordor, and in 2475 they swept across Ithilien and took Osgiliath.

JRR Tolkien, The Return of the King, Appendix A, “Annals of the Kings and Rulers”

So the answer is that while Uruks and Orcs are technically the same thing, the term Uruks is also specifically used for Sauron’s Orcs 2.0, which at the time The Lord of the Rings takes place have been around for some 500 years and can be differentiated from other Orcs just by sight.

Tolkien provides the same answer in Appendix F:

Related, no doubt, was the word uruk of the Black Speech, though this was applied as a rule only to the great soldier-orcs that at this time issued from Mordor and Isengard. The lesser kinds were called, especially by the Uruk-hai, snaga ‘slave’.”

JRR Tolkien, The Return of the King, Appendix F, “The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age”

The above quote brings us to:

What is the difference between Uruks and the Uruk-hai?

We are the Uruk-hai: we do not stop the fight for night or day, for fair weather or for storm.

JRR Tolkien, The Two Towers, “Helm’s Deep”

Uruk-hai is simply Black Speech for “Orc-folk”, so we don’t get any real linguistic help. But the term “Uruk-hai” really only comes into play once we learn that Saruman has his own Orcs.

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 center of a black field.

Aragorn, JRR Tolkien, The Two Towers, “The Departure of Boromir”

In the movies we see Saruman doing some sorts of weird breeding experiments with Orcs, but this is at best hinted at in the books:

‘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!’

JRR Tolkien, Treebeard, The Two Towers, “Treebeard”

Unlike the relatively cut-and-dried section above, Tolkien does not offer any authorial word-of-god to clear us a path (and it should be noted that it’s a bit perilous to take Treebeard’s word on anything. He’s old, but is not counted among the wise. He was about to mistake Hobbits for Orcs until Merry and Pippin corrected him). Whether the term “Uruk-hai” always and only refers to Saruman’s Orcs (perhaps Orc 3.0) or as a synonym for Uruk will remain a point of contention. I suspect that the term Uruk-hai could be applied to any Orc of Mordor, but Saruman’s forces adopted the term “fighting Uruk-hai” as their own.

(I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that there’s some disagreement on this point. All agree that Saruman was cross-breeding Orcs and Men. However, not all agree that the Orcs of the White Hand, and specifically the Fighting Uruk-hai, were the result of that cross-breeding. Elsewhere in the story – for example, Bill Ferny’s companion in Bree – we encounter individuals who are referred to as half-Orc or who are Men with an “Orkish look” about them. Some say that these are the results of Saruman’s breeding experiments, and the fighting Uruk-hai are larger and stronger but are not what the above passages about cross-breeding are referring to. This is by no means a majority opinion, but it has enough support from the text to make it worth mentioning here.)

How long do Orcs live?

“They needed food and drink, and rest, though many were by training as tough as Dwarves in enduring hardship. They could be slain, and they were subject to disease; but apart from these ills they died and were not immortal, even according to the manner of the Quendi; indeed they appear to have been by nature short-lived compared with the span of Men of higher race, such as the Edain”.

JRR Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring (History of Middle Earth volume 10), “Myths Transformed”, Text X

The Edain are just…Men (cf: Dúnedain = “Man of the West” or “West-Men”). So if you read that passage literally, as I understand it, it says “they appear to have been by nature short-lived compared with the span of Men of higher race, such as Men”. That doesn’t make a lot of sense.

The situation is further confused by Bolg, one of the few named Orcs whose lifespan we have a pretty good idea of. Bolg must have been born on or before TA 2799, when his father Azog was killed in the Battle of Azanulbizar (described in The Lord of the Rings Appendix A, “Durin’s Folk”). Bolg would also lead the Orc army into the Battle of Five Armies in TA 2941, making him at least 142 years old at the time of his death. He may have been fairly elderly by that point, as we hear more about his bodyguards’ feats than his own, but he was at least capable of commanding legions of Orcs on the battlefield.

This brings to mind two possibilities:

  1. Tolkien was referring to a specific “high” strain of the Edain, such as the Númenóreans, whose line was enriched by Elven lineage. This would make sense in the context of “Men of higher race”, and perhaps he even meant to write “such as the Dúnedain”.
  2. The term Edain can also refer specifically to the Men who came first into Beleriand in the First Age. Possibly the Edain of the First Age were by nature much longer-lived than their latter-day descendents, excepting those of Númenórean descent.

Exploring possibility 2 a bit further, it’s a little difficult to find concrete evidence of Mannish lifespans in the First Age. But Tolkien does say this:

The years of the Edain were lengthened, according to the reckoning of Men, after their coming to Beleriand; but at last Bëor the Old died when he had lived three and ninety years, for four and forty of which he had served King Felagund. And when he lay dead, of no wound or grief, but stricken by age, the Eldar saw for the first time the swift waning of the life of Men, and the death of weariness which they knew not in themselves; and they grieved greatly for the loss of their friends.

JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West”

This implies to me that the first possibility is more likely.

It’s also quite probable that as Tolkien’s thinkings on Orcs and their origins evolved over the years (the text I quote from above which came from “Myths Transformed” was written some time after the publication of The Hobbit) his opinions regarding their lifespans were also revised. The singular example of Bolg does not constitute conclusive proof that Orcs are by nature longer-lived than Men. It is, however, a compelling example worthy of investigation.

Speaking of Tolkien’s evolving thoughts on Orkish origins, however….

Where did Orcs come from?

OK, here we go: the big question, and (to my mind) one of the biggest unresolved issues in the Legendarium. Can we unravel this knot here? We can certainly try!

Background: How was life created?

The first section of The Silmarillion, called the Ainulindalë, describes the creation of the universe. The god of Tolkien’s Legendarium is called Eru, or Ilúvatar. Eru first created a group of angelic beings called the Ainur. After that, he and the Ainur together sang all the rest of the universe into being. But at the very end, Eru himself created two races, called the Children of Ilúvatar: Elves and Men. These creations are Eru’s and Eru’s alone, and into them he breathed life from the Flame Imperishable, the Secret Fire. Yes, Tolkien was quite fond of Cool Things written in Title Caps.

The evil in the world came about by Melkor, the strongest of the Ainur. He desired to create for himself, and sang his own melody, dissonant to Ilúvatar’s music of creation. But most of all, he desired to make his own true creation, imbued with the Flame just as Ilúvatar’s children are. He spent much of his time searching for the Flame, but he could not find it, because the Flame is Eru’s to bestow.

To be technical, all creatures have a hröa, a body. But only Ilúvatar can grant a fëa, or soul (plural: fëar).

But wait…

If only Eru can create life, and Eru only created Elves and Men, where did all these other races come from? Middle-earth has Dwarves and Hobbits and shapeshifters like Beorn and talking trees and talking eagles and talking thrushes and one Very Good Boy named Huan and devious Dragons and Werewolves and Trolls (some with talking purses) and talking spiders and cameos from his kids’ toys…oh my!

Tolkien got himself into a little bit of a pickle because he wanted his world to have all these different types of creatures but he also deeply loved the cosmogony he created where Elves and Men are the two true Children of Ilúvatar. And furthermore, he didn’t want just any old Ainur to have the ability to create a soul. What’s a writer to do?

He explains the origin of the Dwarves and the Ents and the Great Eagles (and possibly others as well) in the second chapter of the Quenta Silmarillion, “Of Aulë and Yavanna.” I’m not going to quote the whole thing, but essentially Aulë gets impatient for the Children of Ilúvatar to awaken, because he is super stoked about having someone to teach the art of crafting to. So in secret he created his own race, the Dwarves. But Eru shows up:

Ilúvatar spoke to him; and Aulë heard his voice and was silent. And the voice of Ilúvatar said to him: ‘Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?’

…But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility; and the Dwarves shrank from the hammer and were afraid, and they bowed down their heads and begged for mercy. And the voice of Ilúvatar said to Aulë: ‘Thy offer I accepted even as it was made. Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices?

JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, “Of Aulë and Yavanna”

So basically, Ilúvatar told Aulë that he was trying to do something beyond his own abilities. Unlike Melkor, Aulë responded with humility and repentance. Ilúvatar acknowledged this repentance with a gift: he granted life (fëar, souls) to his creation, the Dwarves.

But then we have a classic marital dispute. Aulë’s wife Yavanna is upset that both Ilúvatar’s Children and Aulë’s Dwarves are going to kill her precious animals and cut down her precious trees. Aulë doesn’t care, so she goes to complain to Manwë (the leader of the Ainur). Manwë goes off to have a think, and comes back with this nugget:

And Manwë said: ‘O Kementári, Eru hath spoken, saying: “Do then any of the Valar suppose that I did not hear all the Song, even the least sound of the least voice? Behold! When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also, and it will summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the kelvar and the olvar, and some will dwell therein, and be held in reverence, and their just anger shall be feared. For a time: while the Firstborn are in their power, and while the Secondborn are young.” But dost them not now remember, Kementári, that thy thought sang not always alone? Did not thy thought and mine meet also, so that we took wing together like great birds that soar above the clouds? That also shall come to be by the heed of Ilúvatar, and before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lords of the West.’

JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, “Of Aulë and Yavanna”

(There’s some terminology in there to explain: kelvar are animals, olvar are plants. The Elves are the Firstborn and the Men are the Secondborn. Kementári is Yavanna’s other name.)

This passage is pretty dense and a little obscure. But it explains the origin of both the Great Eagles and the Ents.

The key phrase, and the one which is the most confusing and controversial, is the “spirits from afar” bit. This could be referring to your standard fëar from the Flame Imperishable, making Ents and the like roughly equivalent to Men and Elves. But I believe it’s referring to Ainur; specifically, to Maia who don’t have the power to form bodies for themselves.

This passage could also explain the origin of some of the other seemingly sentient creatures, such as Huan the hound, possibly the ravens and the one particularly intelligent thrush from The Hobbit, and other such anomalies. However, we will return to this subject anon.

These specially-created creatures can reproduce among themselves (a characteristic that the Ainur lack) but there is no indication that their fëar share in the destiny of the Elves, Men, or even the Dwarves.

But seriously though, about those Orcs…

None of this material has covered the Orcs. So far, we’re still left scratching our heads.

Well, Tolkien’s first recorded idea about the origin of the Orcs is written in The Silmarillion:

But of those unhappy [Elves] who were ensnared by Melkor little is known of a certainty. For who of the living has descended into the pits of Utumno, or has explored the darkness of the counsels of Melkor? 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.

JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor”

This passage serves to confirm both that Melkor could not make life (similar to what Ilúvatar told Aulë) and that the Orcs came about by corrupting Elves. This one passage in The Silmarillion has been the source of quite a bit of confusion on the topic of Orcs and their nature. As is his nature Tolkien waffles a bit (“this is held true by the wise”), but this passage seems to state quite clearly that Orcs came from Elves. Note that at this point in the story the Men have not actually awoken yet, so if you want Orcs to be twisted descendents of corrupted Children, Elves are all you got.

Tolkien muses again on this topic as recorded in HoME 10, which will become an important source for this essay:

Out of the discords of the Music — sc. not directly out of either of the themes, Eru’s or Melkor’s, but of their dissonance with regard one to another — evil things appeared in Arda, which did not descend from any direct plan or vision of Melkor: they were not “his children”; and therefore, since all evil hates, hated him too. The progeniture of things was corrupted. Hence Orcs? Part of the Elf-Man idea gone wrong. Though as for Orcs, the Eldar believed Morgoth had actually “bred” them by capturing Men (and Elves) early and increasing to the utmost any corrupt tendencies they possessed.

JRR Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring (History of Middle Earth volume 10), “Myths Transformed”, Text VII

In short, Tolkien suggests that possibly Orcs arose as part of the discord between the third theme of creation and the Music sung by Melkor. However, he immediately refutes this idea by suggesting that the Elves themselves believed that Orcs were twisted version of the Children, as outlined above. He also introduces the possibility of Men as well as Elves being the breeding stock used to make Orcs.

However, Christopher Tolkien notes that in the typescript for The Annals of Aman (some of the source material for The Silmarillion), Tolkien hand-wrote “Alter this. Orcs are not Elvish.”

Tolkien enjoys the habit of equivocating rather than speaking ex cathedra on such matters, as shown above when he says “the Eldar believed.” This is one of the reasons why it can be so exhausting to come up with a definite answer for questions like this. Even a direct statement such as the above marginal note seems to be a boon to this research, but who can know the mind of another? Perhaps Tolkien wrote that and then discarded it.

But also in Morgoth’s Ring, Christopher Tolkien managed to dig up a small monograph by Tolkien. It appears to have been written in 1955, still nearly two decades before his death, but possibly indicative of his thought process. The entire essay is extremely relevant, so rather than several pages of quotations, I will try to summarize:

Considering the above, he comes to a few conclusions:

On this last point, he brings us back to Treebeard’s musing about Saruman and his creation of the Fighting Uruk-hai in Orthanc.

However, this is not the final word on Orcs. In yet another essay on the subject of unknown date (but probably written before 1960), Tolkien backs off from his assertion that Orcs are mere beasts, full stop, or that they are puppets of Melkor. He also disputes the idea that they are fully Elvish. This essay is very clearly written and feels very much like his definitive view of the subject.

It became clear in time that undoubted Men could under the domination of Morgoth or his agents in a few generations be reduced almost to the Orc-level of mind and habits; and then they would or could be made to mate with Orcs producing new breeds, often larger and more cunning. There is no doubt that long afterwards, in the Third Age, Saruman rediscovered this, or learned of it in lore, and in his lust for mastery committed this, his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile.

JRR Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring (History of Middle Earth volume 10), “Myths Transformed”, Text X

He points out (both here and in the previous essay) that the biggest barrier to Orcs being corrupted Men (or cross-breeds) is that the Elves first encounter the Orcs before Men even come onto the scene. However, he offers a possible explanation:

For Morgoth had many servants, the oldest and most potent of whom were immortal, belonging indeed in their beginning to the Maiar; and these evil spirits like their Master could take on visible forms. Those whose business it was to direct the Orcs often took Orkish shapes, though they were greater and more terrible. Thus it was that the histories speak of Great Orcs or Orc-captains who were not slain, and who reappeared in battle through years far longer than the span of the lives of Men.

JRR Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring (History of Middle Earth volume 10), “Myths Transformed”, Text X

Uh, so I’m a little lost

I don’t blame you. Let me try to summarize:

“This then, as it may appear, was my father’s final view of the question: Orcs were bred from Men, and if ‘the conception in mind of the Orcs may go far back into the night of Melkor’s thought’ it was Sauron who, during the ages of Melkor’s captivity in Aman, brought into being the black armies that were available to his Master when he returned.”

Christopher Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring (History of Middle Earth volume 10), “Myths Transformed”, notes on Text X

Do Orcs have fëar (souls)?

The text doesn’t come right out and say, but I believe we are forced to conclude that yes, they do. When Tolkien asserted in essay VIII that they were no more than beasts, he made a distinction between creatures with fëar who are rational beings with independent wills and creatures without, who can never at best be more than animals parroting things they are taught. In essay X, he acknowledges that Orcs do not fit in the second category.

These Orc fëar would seemingly, if Orcs are descended at least partly from Men, follow the Doom of Man – to leave Arda entirely after death and prepare for the Second Music after the end of all things.

Can Orcs be redeemed?

Tolkien mused on this point slightly in his essays. In Text VIII, he says, “…Eru would not sanction the work of Melkor so as to allow the independence of the Orcs. (Not unless Orcs were ultimately remediable, or could be amended and ‘saved’?).” This quote sounds like he is considering the possibility. However, in Text X he writes, “They might have become irredeemable (at least by Elves and Men), but they remained within the Law.” It sounds like he made up his mind. He does leave the option for a supernatural redemption.

Ultimately, it seems as though Tolkien had no interest in writing an Orc redemption story, as throughout the written history of the ages of Elves and Men, spanning several millennia, there is not (at least to my knowledge) anything that even comes close.

Concluding thoughts

I hope some find this post useful and that it adds to the global conversation regarding Tolkien and the world he created. I have tried to be respectful of the many differing opinions on this topic and provide a definitive answer only when the text does.