Few creatures in Tolkien’s legendarium have such a large roll, while also being so greatly misunderstood and (and in many ways unknowable) as Orcs. They were there from the very first stories and evolved when he needed armies to fill the Enemy’s ranks. They were a foil to his philosophy, and even their in-story origins was fluid and undecided for decades. This week, we’ll take a look at Tolkien’s history with the Orcs, from his earliest intentions to the very last word on their purpose.
Tolkien first wrote about Orcs in 1916’s Fall of Gondolin, part of the Book of Lost Tales. Tolkien often counted this story as his first, though it was actually preceded by an introduction of sorts called The Cottage of Lost Play. Through the talks in this cottage, we learn about the creation of the universe, the higher beings, the Elves, Men, the Enemy and its hordes. They fought under Melko, along side the Balrogs and dragons, and in armies of their own.
When first written, he called them Orqui and sometimes Goblins, the terms being at this stage fully interchangeable. It was in his first mention of them that he debated their creation – if it could even be called such a thing: “…for all that race were bred by Melko of the subterranean heats and slime.” This would possibly place them among, as Tolkien would soon call them, the Úvanimor, “who are monsters, giants, and ogres.”
Several different origins for the Orcs were in favor during the long history of writing. It seems that Tolkien at first believed that they were created by Melko [Melkor/Morgoth], though he hinted that perhaps not all of the Orcs were such. Melko had captured many of the Noldoli [Noldar], and kept them as slaves. When they would sometimes escape, Men would mistake them for Orcs. It was speculated that it might have been “that certain of the Noldoli were twisted to the evil of Melko and mingled among these Orcs….”
The Noldoli called the Orcs “Glamhoth,” meaning “folk of dreadful hate.” Tolkien described that “their hearts were of granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal, and to nothing were they more fain than to aid in the basest of the purposes of Melko.”
The Orcs appeared next in the Tale of Tinúvial, started in 1917, and the Tale of Turambar from the year after. Though the Orcs and Goblins were the same species, Tolkien hinted that perhaps there was a difference after all. In the Tale of Tinúvial, it was explained that the “thrall-Noldoli laboured bitterly under the Orcs and goblins.” He would hint at this a few years later in another tale, as well.
Tinúvial also birthed the Orcs as the “foul broodlings of Melko,” and introduced a trait that they would carry from then on:
“Many a combat and an escape had he [Beren] in those days, and he slew therein more than once both wolf and the Orc that rode thereon with nought but an ashen club that he bore….” The Orcs, we learn, would travel with wolves “as dogs with Men.” But these were no ordinary wolves. When they camped, the wolves did not sleep, but kept vigil over their masters, and “their eyes shone like points of red light among the trees.”
Nienóri in the Turambar story, camed upon one of these camps, and at first believed it to be a camp of Men. Looking on it, “she saw that they were creatures of a squat and unlovely stature that dwelt there, and most evil faces had they, and their voices and their laughter was as the clash of stone and metal. Armed they were with curved swords and bows of horn….”
Also in Turambar, the Orcs were described as having “ears of cats,” meaning they could hear sounds that Men and Elves (probably) could not. Earlier, in Gondolin, their sight is likened to that of cats, as well, with “eyes of yellow and green like cats that could pierce all glooms and see through mist or fog or night….”
Cats didn’t get much love in Tolkien’s early stories, and their feline likeness probably stemed from Telvildo Prince of Cats, a servant of Melko who would be later folded into the character who would become Sauron (that’s a story for a different time).
Though Orcs were created by Melko, they apparently bred in the same manner as Men and Elves. There’s mention of the “sons of Orcs” in Gondolin, but, unlike Elves, they seem to not have been able to breed with Men. There was the story of Meglin from that same tale that told of rumors that this betrayer of Gondolin “had Orc’s blood in his veins,” but the narrator didn’t see how that was possible.
In his later writings, especially in Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gave names to a good many Orcs. But he handed out a few in the early writings as well. His first were probably given during an incredibly killing spree by Tuor and Ecthelion:
“There Tuor slew Othrod a lord of the Orcs cleaving his helm, and Balcmeg he hewed asunder, and Lug he smote with his axe that his limbs were cut from beneath him at the knee, but Ecthelion shore through two captains of the goblins at a sweep and cleft the head of Orcobal their chiefest champion to his teeth; and by reason of the great doughtiness of those two lords they came even unto the Balrogs.”
The Orcs, as can be seen, were an early creation of Tolkien’s, coming at the same time as his first few stories. In 1920, when he began to compile the Book of Lost Tales many other stories had been written – from the Music of the Ainur to The Hiding of Valinor and many in between and after. When he laid them out, they formed a storyline very closely related to what would much later become the published Silmarillion.
As far as the Orcs were concerned, however, in the story, they did not come about until an early draft of the Awakening of Men, though that was removed in a subsequent draft. This placed the first mention of the Orcs during the History of the Exiled Gnomes, a sort of proto-Return of the Noldor. Incidentally, in the published Silmarillion, they show up much earlier, in the Coming of the Elves chapter.
After working for the last time on the Book of Lost Tales material, Tolkien turned in 1920 to retelling two of his stories as long epic poems. The first he worked on was a new version of the Tale of Turambar called the Lay of the Children of Húrin. In this, Orcs played a similar role as before, though lengthened and flowered as poetry.
Here, we have “Glamhoth’s goblin armies” and “the wolf-riders and the wolves of Hell”.
His death or torment he deemed was come,
for oft had the Orcs for evil pastime
him goaded gleeful and gashed with knives
that they cast with cunning, with cruel spears.
Though the Orcs don’t really go through any massive changes through the Lays, they are described in more vile and horrible manners. It’s here, in the Lay of Leithian (from the Tale of Tinúvial) where we understand just how evil these creatures were:
The leaguer of Angband Morgoth broke:
his enemies in fire and smoke
were scattered, and the Orcs there slew
and slew, until the blood like dew
dripped from each cruel and crooked blade.
“The Orcs went forth to rape and war,
and Balrog captains marched before”.
Tolkien would soon put down his Lays in order to focus upon writing what would become The Hobbit, though, at first, he did not link it directly with the Lost Tales/Lays. This, along with its sequel, Lord of the Rings, would transform the Orcs into something much more human, if not slightly less menacing.
A Few Notes
- In the Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien also mentioned that Melko “fashioned the false-fairies or Kaukareldar in their [Elves] likeness, and these deceived and betrayed Men.” It seems like Melko was a bit more crafty in the old days.
- I really don’t find it helpful to speculate on why Tolkien wrote something the way he did, but his battle scenes in Lost Tales, written very shortly after World War I, are much more brutal than those written in Lord of the Rings when he son was fighting in World War II.
- From now on, if you have kids, you have to refer to them only as your “broodlings.”
About the Photo
I know that I’ve shown this place before, but this is Goblin Valley, Utah. If you ever find yourself in the West, make a point to visit. The “goblins” are actually small hoodoos – large rocks held up by much softer sandstone. I can’t recommend it enough.
- Miles today: 20
- Miles thus far: 1194 (280 miles since leaving Lothlórien)
- 109 miles to the Falls of Rauros
- 579 miles to Mt. Doom
Book II, Chapter 8, Farewell to Lórien. Drifting down the Anduin, February 21, 3019 TA. (map)