Last time, we looked at elves, because before then we had looked at dwarves. The eternal hate-triangle must therefore be completed, and so we shall have a look at the third party in this unceasing conflict: orcs, who are officially no longer always chaotic evil.
Except, are they really? Were they ever? What even is ethics? If a treant falls in a forest, and there are no adventurers around to loot it, does it make a side-quest? Do you know the way to Scarborough Fair?
All these questions and more will form the focus for today. Thank you for coming to my orc-talk.
Waaagh! huh! Yeah!
Orcs did not undergo the same reinvention by Tolkien that elves and dwarves did. This is because Tolkien invented them almost entirely, drawing upon a line in Beowulf and pre-existing ideas of the monstrous humanoid/demonic spirit: the goblin and the ogre. Thus, this week it is particularly important to start with Tolkien, and we will be seeing more of him further down the page. First, however, a brief summation of the sorts of traits generally associated with orcs:
- Evil (this is a big one)
- Worship demons
- Rivalry with dwarves and elves
- Physically powerful
- Scavengers, not builders
- Pre-industrial, tribal society
- Or, conversely, highly industrial (with disregard for nature)
- Tusks (pig motif optional)
- Cannibalistic, or some other unpleasant dietary choice
- Affinity with scary animals and/or their fantastical equivalents (wolves, spiders, etc.)
This list is noticeably smaller than those for dwarves or elves. Why is that? Well…
Tolkien’s orcs were, originally, elves, and that is about as much as the books tell us: everything else was gleaned from his notes. In his works, the word orc can refer to a wide range of creatures, and was used interchangeably with words like goblin and uruk, hence uruk-hai, the particularly dangerous orc bred/manufactured by Saruman. They served in the books as an antagonistic force, an ever-present threat which Tolkien could deploy to menace individual characters, towns, cities, nations, and even the world.
Tolkien was, allegedly, unsatisfied with the ramifications of a lot of this: as a Roman Catholic, and effectively writing a Roman Catholic allegory in TLotR, the idea that an entire people was evil and unable to be otherwise would have gone against his philosophical grain, hence the “they were elves, once” line. The orcs, as Tolkien might have investigated them, were all evil, but not essentially so. If their forebears had made different decisions, if they were not in thrall to a mind-bending demon, perhaps they might have had the opportunity to make their own decisions.
Certainly, orc cultures and individuals varied: the goblins of Moria and the uruk-hai of Isengard are the most stark examples, but there is a large range of orcish social structures, even if the films lend orcs more individual personality than the books. Nevertheless, the idea of a monstrous, perpetually evil society strikes people (and not unreasonably) as racist, and the perpetuation of the tropes into fantasy books and games is no better.
So, was Tolkien a racist? Maybe: I am not qualified to comment. Are his orcs a racist creation? No: they are symptomatic of a problem in the genre, indeed of many genres. That is, that the protagonists need a faceless horde to threaten them and, occasionally, be mown down by them, and for the reader to know that said horde ultimately does not matter, hence why they are so lacking in hallmarks when compared with elves or dwarves. Even A Song of Ice and Fire, with its complex characters and morally ambiguous situations, does not shy away from the massacre of anonymous soldiers and guards, whose motivations, hopes and dreams are ultimately irrelevant to the plot.
Classic orc is a product of the needs of fiction, and it might not be ideal, but there are no better ideas hanging around. If employed, though, it might be better to use it as a starting point: consider why these faceless belligerents ended up that way (which, I am convinced, is what gave us Sword of the Stars‘ zuul). It could be anything from magical mind control to some sort of territorial dispute. Be careful, however, because you might end up falling into the clutches of
Nice Try orc
As I hinted earlier, the attempts to get around the unfortunate implications of “always evil and savage races” are themselves not always great. Indeed, some are worse than the wrong they try to correct. Nice Try Orc is the usual result, because in attempting to subvert expectations, the product is itself a problematic orc. Problemorctic? Problematorc?
The first method of subversion is to root orc tropes in something cultural. So far, so good. As psychosomatic beings, an orc’s drives can be different from a human’s for differences rooted in biology/ontology/whatever passes for either in a given IP. This is not itself racist as long as it is not purely deterministic, and could even be quite interesting to explore. Humans might find the orcish hair-trigger temper frightening and use it to demonize them. Orcs might be likewise frightened of humans, whose emotions are always concealed: the orcs never know where they stand with them. This can lead neatly into a discussion about what is inherent and what is enculturated, nature versus nurture and all that jazz: perhaps an orcish display of anger is actually just a manifestation of their cultural expectation of honesty. Perhaps the orcs over the hill are actually much more reserved (why is it that only humans have cultural diversity in fiction, and all non-human cultures are depicted as racially assumed? Wait, I answered my own question…). Or perhaps it is the fact that humans insist upon making eye-contact when talking, which is not only rude but actively hostile behaviour. Of course the orcs are going to be angry: what did the humans expect?
Regardless, how this tends to end up going wrong is as follows: the orcs tend to be pre-industrial, and so the portrayal comes laden with patronizing subtext.
Take, for example, the orcs of Warcraft III. There is actually a surprisingly rich story behind them, but a player could be forgiven for missing it. The farseer (shaman) Thrall is the focus for much of it, and he has a vaguely Native American æsthetic, which plays into the opening narrative of the orcs wanting to find a home away from the humans who treat them as monsters to be exterminated. Great.
However, thinking about it for more than a moment, the problems become clear: the game might well be shying away from the white saviour narrative, but it is still effectively saying, Yes, their ways might be different, they might be primitive, brutish and superstitious, but they have an unrecognized honour and dignity which is worthy of respect! They are, effectively, being patronized, and when the fictional culture can be understood as standing in for a real culture, then real people are being patronized. Go on, indigenous peoples! Warcraft III’s tutorial seems to say. We’re rooting for you! Just hop on some boats and sail away from your oppressors! You are a proud, warrior people! You can do it!
Now, of course, that is not what the writers intended, but it shows the difficulties and problems involved in trying to get away from Classic Orc, in that it is very easy to go from one load of unfortunate, racist implications to another.
This leads us neatly into the second way in which writers end up with Nice Try Orc: trying to make moral statements. Tolkien had literary chops before he wrote his magnum opus, but most fantasy writers do not. Likewise, Tolkien is making philosophical points, and most writers have only a passing acquaintance with philosophy at best. Orc Classic may not be the ideal solution, but Tolkien was making a philosophical point with them. Fantasy authors and game designers often want to make… different points.
Take, for example, Dungeons and Dragons: in the third edition, the supplemental tome The Book of Exalted Deeds opens by taking an incredibly strict, Kantian and metaphysical view of morality. Any given action always has an essential moral quality, and attempting to justify the act by the outcome is wrong. This flies in the face of modern, Western thinking, which is generally a sort of fuzzy utilitarianism (If someone is hurt, how can it be good? As long as no-one is hurt, what is the harm? Except for my pet peeves, which are as follows…). Of course, straight after this, the writer(s) then begins to backtrack, and the whole enterprise has fallen apart before too long.
Wizards of the Coast want to liberate orcs and drow from the racist baggage which they have been carrying. Great: racism is bad, and deterministic tropes have to give way to player agency. In a sense, the always chaotic evil label had to die the moment the first person said, Could I play an orc? However, Wizards of the Coast does not understand what evil is: orcs are no longer always chaotic evil, but gnolls still are, because “they are more like fiends than people anyway”.
Did you spot the problem? No?
The problem is that gnolls are orcs. They might look like hyenas and have a fascinating matriarchal society, but they are orcs: they exist primarily to be faceless hordes to menace the players and be cut down without remorse, exactly like Classic Orc. All WotC has done is move the goalposts, leaving things precisely as bad as they were before: These people with green skin and protruding jaws we treated in a racist way, but now we want to affirm that they are fully-formed individuals with hopes, dreams, and the capacity for free will and moral autonomy. But those guys with the hairy faces and hunched backs, they are not really people, they are more like demons, so it’s okay to treat them as before.
How is this better? It is not. It is practically rehearsing the arguments used to justify enslavement of Native Americans.
Now, to be clear, I am NOT saying that therefore we should have a free pass when it comes to orcs because why bother? I am saying that there has to be a better solution than this nonsense. The problem of Nice Try Orc can only be solved by addressing two issues: firstly, cultural sensitivity and awareness. Secondly, knowing what purpose the orcs have in one’s writing. This solution barely does one, and it shows complete confusion with the other.
In a sense, Nice Try Orc is the failure to address the problems of Classic Orc, but it is still an attempt. Thrall’s orcs may carry some unfortunate implications, but they also carry positive ones: they are refugees, fighting for a place in the world; they resist the attempts of a demonic overlord to control them; they are agents in their own narrative.* If it had not been for the way in which they carried the expectations of their creators, they could have been even better narrative creations than Tolkien’s.
*As, indeed, are the zuul by the time of Sword of the Stars II, a game which is theorized to exist in some timelines.
Silly Orc cuts the Gordian Knot with the help of an implausibly sized axe, and the world is all the better for it. Probably best known through the Warhammer franchise and its Orks (sic), Silly Orc just doubles down on the idea of being a faceless horde of antagonists and, rather than examining the idea or shying away from thinking about it, just revels in the general nonsense of it all, like a self-aware game of Space Invaders.
Silly Orcs are effectively a form of card-carrying villain. They are all about fighting all the time, and this is acknowledged by all and sundry. Examples of Silly Orc are surprisingly uncommon, probably because we are in an age of gritty and cynical fiction, and the idea of a creature accepting or even enjoying that fact that it lives only to fight smacks either too much of the putties from Power Rangers (who might just about fit this classification) or the Klingons from Star Trek (who, I would argue, do not).
Like other orcs – uruk-hai, zuul, trollocs, putties – Silly Orc is often the result of some non-divine artifice for the purpose of being an antagonist to someone which, I suppose, could theoretically put WH40K’s Space Marines (sic) here as well. Silly Orc is also too, well, silly to write much about, although it does raise one interesting question in particular, which links it neatly back to Classic Orc: the question of free will. Daft though it might be, the fact that the orks are compelled to fight, even though they enjoy it, could raise some interesting philosophical questions about the intersection, or not, of free will and happiness, and so for the last part of this e-
Oi! What ya doin’, ya grot? ‘Dis ‘ere masheen iz for mechaniks an’ brainboyz only! Get back ‘ter fightin’ da ‘umies before I krump ya! WAAAGH!