For Tolkien, the 1930s was the decade of the Hobbit. When he began writing it, he had no real inclination to base it upon the Silmarillion material that he had been writing for the previous fifteen years. Nevertheless, this story borrowed much from those early tales – namely Elves and Goblins – and eventually he couldn’t help but to connect the two worlds.
Just prior to writing The Hobbit, Tolkien had backed away from the epic poems, the Lays, and begun to rework the Book of Lost Tales stories into the Quenta and Annals of Valinor/Beleriand.
Concerning the Orcs, Tolkien attempted to solidify just how and when they came into existence. “The hordes of the Orcs he [Morgoth] made of stone, but their hearts of hatred,” stated his 1930 Quenta. This was first to have happened shortly after Morgoth overthrew the lamps in Valinor. In the same draft, however, Tolkien also suggested that Morgoth made them after fleeing to Middle-earth.
In the Annals of Beleriand, from around that same time, Tolkien wrote that Morgoth “devises the Balrogs and Orcs” shortly before placing the Silmarils in his iron crown. The word “devises” is a strange one, which he soon changed to “brought into being,” making it fully clear that the Orcs (and Balrogs) were created by Morgoth.
The Orcs themselves were portrayed the same way in which they had always been – nearly faceless monsters in the ranks of Morgoth’s armies. Sometimes he gave names to a few, but never personalities. They were vicious and evil and possessed no similar qualities to Elves or Men. But that was about to change.
For years, Tolkien had written his children letters purported to be from Father Christmas and Karhu, aka, Polar Bear. In 1932, while still working on the Annals and the Hobbit, Father Christmas told a story about how Polar Bear went exploring in some goblin caves. Now, these were goblins (with a small ‘g’), but must have bore some relation to the goblins, the Orcs, from the Silmarillion stories.
“Goblins are to us very much what rats are to you,” wrote Father Christmas, “only worse because they are very clever; and only better because there are, in these parts, very few.” He went on to tell that they used to be more trouble, but he had received help from the Gnomes – a term Tolkien used for the race of Elves who would become the Noldar.
The next year, 1933, Father Christmas wrote again of goblins: “The worst attack we have had for centuries.” Writing that “they must have gathered their nasty friends from mountains all over the world, and been busy all the summer while we were at our sleepiest.”
By this point, Tolkien had been at work on the Hobbit for some time, where Goblins played a much different role. At first, it seems, the Hobbit was not meant to be part of the Silmarillion stories, but Tolkien could hardly resist the world he had created. Slowly, the new story’s Goblins were obviously the same goblins and Orcs from the early tales, but they had become strangely human.
These goblins were more influenced by outside stories from the 1800s (such as George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin) than by the wretched and vile Orcs from the Silmarillion. And yet, they would quickly become one in the same.
In the Hobbit, Tolkien had quite a bit to say about these “great ugly-looking goblins.” They were still, as before, “cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted.” As in the Father Christmas letters, they could tunnel and even existed to the present day:
“It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, fore wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.”
From the Hobbit we also heard conversations had between the Great Goblin and the Dwarves. Apparently, they spoke the same language as the story’s heroes. The Great Goblin even recognized Thorin and the sword Orcrist, which meant “goblin-cleaver.”
Orcrist seems to specifically tie these goblins to the Orcs, as Orcrist translates from Gnomish as “orc”(goblin) + “crist” (knife or slash). Additionally, the Goblin King accused the Dwarves of being “elf-friends.”
Though these goblins were obviously not human, they were personalized much more so than in the earlier stories. The Goblin King especially seemed based upon a bumbling but angry human king. We are also introduced, though slightly, to Azog and Bolg, the father/son goblins. Thorin’s grandfather killed Azog, and Bolg, at the Battle of the Five Armies, attacked in revenge (and was gloriously killed by Beorn!).
Bolg’s goblins, however, were of a different sort than the goblins the Dwarves first encountered. They were “of huge size with scimitars of steel.” These were serious warriors, much like those from the older stories, and like those we’d soon meet in Lord of the Rings, which he would begin writing in a few short years.
Tolkien finished the final manuscript of the Hobbit in early 1933, in between the two Father Christmas letters already mentioned, originally ending it when Bilbo killed the dragon Smaug. But in 1936, he returned to it, finishing the work in October of that year, and ending it the way we know it today.
It’s also around this time that Tolkien and C.S. Lewis decided to science fiction. While Lewis composed Out of the Silent Planet, Tolkien attempted something called The Lost Road, which was a time travel story telling of The Fall of Númenor – it was impossible for Tolkien to leave his world, it seems.
In the Lost Road, Orcs are, of course, mentioned, but their origin began to change:
“And Men were troubled by many evil things that Morgoth had made in the days of his dominion: demons and dragons and monsters, and Orcs, that are mockeries of the creatures of Ilúvatar; and their lot was unhappy.”
This passage does not say that the Orcs were corrupted Elves, but the hint of that is certainly there. Morgoth, in this telling, still created the Orcs, but did so based upon the design established by Morgoth.
Tolkien would later debate over whether Evil was capable of creation, or whether creation was something only Good could do – Evil could only corrupt. Here, we see the seeds of that thought.
And though it doesn’t really matter much at this point, he was still trying to figure out just when Morgoth made the Orcs, Balrogs and other monsters. When he returned to rewrite the Annals of Valinor, it’s clear that they were made before he came to Middle-earth.
The next year, 1937, Tolkien began a rewriting of the Quenta, which he now called the Quenta Silmarillion. In this manuscript, the origin of the Orcs was unchanged, though fleshed out:
“But in that time Morgoth made many monsters of diverse kind and shapes that long troubled the world; yet the Orcs were not made until he had looked upon the Elves, and he made them in mockery of the Children of Ilúvatar.”
In another chapter of the same manuscript, Tolkien reiterated that the Orcs were “made of stone, but their hearts of hatred,” as he had written several years before.
From 1930, through the Hobbit, and right up to the point when he would begin to start the first draft of Lord of the Rings, Orcs had changed in some fascinating ways, and had shown up unannounced in some interesting places (as was their clever wont). But with Lord of the Rings, the Orcs would change yet again, this time becoming uncomfortably human-like in ways even the Hobbit could not convey.
A Few Notes
- All through researching this post, I kept thinking that the origin of the Orcs was going to change, and then I’d see the same ideas voiced in only slightly different ways. This man worked slowly.
- The Silmarillion-era stories came from Volumes IV and V of the History of Middle-earth series: The Shaping of Middle-earth and The Lost Road.
- Tolkien had apparently only drawn what Goblins/Orcs looked like in his Father Christmas letters. How was this possible?
About the Photo
Goblin Valley again, as promised. I’m torn whether I like the black & white or color photos of this wonderful little place in Utah.
- Miles today: 20
- Miles thus far: 1214 (300 miles since leaving Lothlórien)
- 89 miles to the Falls of Rauros
- 559 miles to Mt. Doom
Book II, Chapter 8, Farewell to Lórien. Drifting down the Anduin, February 22, 3019 TA. (map)