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

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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.

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