One Way To Rectify Tolkien's Racist Orc Problem? Make Orcs Interesting Again!

- Lord of the Rings -
One Way To Rectify Tolkien's Racist Orc Problem? Make Orcs Interesting Again!

Tolkien’s orcs: They’re racist!

Though it's a statement that might disappoint fans, it's a statement that's not really in dispute. The few descriptions we have of the orcs in the text of The Lord of the Rings specifically give them features typically found in Central and East Asian people (in addition to a whole bunch of other nasty, mostly inhuman traits). And, in a lengthy letter picking apart a film treatment for The Lord of the Rings in the 1960s, Tolkien specifically describes the orcs as resembling “the least-lovely (to European eyes) Mongol types.” That “(to European eyes)” is trying to do some real heavy lifting, but it collapses under the weight of "least-lovely."

The description of the orcs’ appearance coupled with their function as essentially faceless hordes from the East indicates their roots in the (again, wildly racist, yikes) “Yellow Peril” trope. Whether racism was consciously done or unconsciously reproduced doesn't really matter because, well, the dude's dead and also Death of the Author.

While we can’t do anything about Tolkien’s texts themselves, adaptations don’t have to carry this racist thread through. In fact, there’s plenty of opportunity for Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series to not just do away with the racist appearance of the orcs as described by Tolkien, but to really lean into an examination of totalitarianism and how it works through the lens of the unhappy orcs. But, first, let's back up.

What actually are the orcs?

Tolkien’s original conception of the orcs indicated that they were bred by Morgoth, the Great Enemy, using captured Elves, because Morgoth himself could not create life. Only Eru Ilúvatar, the Creator, could do that using an animating spirit (the fëa, as the Elves call it) of sentient beings like Elves and Men and Dwarves and Hobbits. This is the explanation we’re given in the Peter Jackson film adaptation; it’s also the explanation we get in the published The Silmarillion.

But Tolkien spent decades revising this orkish origin story, almost going around in circles. At one point, he hypothesized they were corrupted forms of Men, but the chronology there didn’t quite add up. At another point, he decided they must be beasts who did not, in fact, have fëa; their ability to speak was merely them parroting talk they heard from Morgoth and other sentient evils. This theory was abandoned, because their behavior was simply too un-beast-like.

There’s an immediate problem with all of the orc origin stories though: The orcs seem pretty sentient and wholly unlike other peoples of Middle-earth. They seem to have some independent thought — they have different goals, different abilities, and different languages, and though we usually see them held in service to a single will, they are capable of creating their own societies when left to their own devices. “They were certainly dominated by their master,” Tolkien wrote in an essay, “but his dominion was by fear, and they were aware of this fear and hated him.” By all accounts, the orcs are what we could call a “race” of sentient beings.

But if orcs are truly their own people, with their own individual animating spirits, there is a crucial question: Why would Ilúvatar give these creatures, these servants of the Enemy, fëa? Tolkien, it seems, never quite answered this question to his own satisfaction.

Orcs in the Second Age

After the defeat of Morgoth at the end of the First Age, we don’t hear too much about orcs. They’re certainly not present on the island of Númenor, and for a long while, there’s something approaching peace in Middle-earth as the corrupting influence of Morgoth fades and Sauron lies in wait. But as Sauron begins to build his forces back up before influencing Celebrimbor and company to create the Rings of Power, we’ll likely see them come back into play.

There’s a tidbit about the orcs from some notes scribbled by Tolkien near the end of 1969 that could give Amazon’s series a new, interesting direction:

Thus the greater part of the orks, though under Morgoth’s orders and the dark shadow of their fear of him, were only intermittently objects of his immediate thought and concern, and while that was removed they relapsed into independence and became conscious of their hatred of him and his tyranny.

This paints a picture of beings who have been ground down by a totalitarian regime, who may hate the Free Peoples of Middle-earth, but who hate their leader just as much. The Elves were taught that though the orcs must be fought, they were not evil in origin, and should never be treated with malice or cruelty: “If any Orcs surrendered and asked for mercy, they must be granted it, even at a cost,” Tolkien writes, adding in a footnote that no orc ever seems to have asked for this mercy because Morgoth had convinced them that the Elves were utterly without mercy and would, in fact, eat captured orcs.

Television is the perfect medium to explore this idea, which has an unforeseen (on the part of its creator) resonance today. As tens of thousands of not just Americans, but people around the world, fall victim to conspiracy theories and cause real harm, the question of just how culpable these people are is at the forefront of nearly every conversation about them and their beliefs. Are they vulnerable people who have been poisoned by a steady diet of misinformation and need some kind of deprogramming, or people who have been irredeemably corrupted by hatred and spite?

It’s in this question — again, not fully answered by Tolkien himself — that there is a real opportunity to make the orcs, if not a totally three-dimensional antagonist, at least more than just a faceless, evil horde that still bears traces of their racist origins.

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