Goblins They May Be Called – Orcs in the Years of the Hobbit

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.

Camera: Bolsey Jubilee Film: Fuji Color 200

Camera: Bolsey Jubilee
Film: Fuji Color 200

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?
Goblins attack Polar Bear. There are only 15 of them pictured, but Polar Bear insisted there were at least 1,000.

Goblins attack Polar Bear. There are only 15 of them pictured, but Polar Bear insisted there were at least 1,000.

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)

orcweek

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22 thoughts on “Goblins They May Be Called – Orcs in the Years of the Hobbit

  1. I Don’t know what is better that polar bear is exaggerating or that polar bears just can’t count.

    I want Polar Bear to return and be a major part of Xmas now. It’s just too great!

    • I really wasn’t going to touch on it here (was saving it for the podcast). I guess I really don’t see a problem since they are a different species entirely. They aren’t human and don’t (apparently) have souls. Now, as I write that, I do hear the eugenics type of argument from the 1930s. I just think it’s more complex than that.

      How Tolkien treated the other human races is what I find a bit more problematic. But within the frame of the story (as proto-European), I’m not sure there was another way to expect that to go.

      So anyway, I don’t feel the drawing is a good representation of Tolkien’s possible race problems. The Goblins are drawn basically like ants. They’re clearly not analogues for different human races. Especially when you consider that Tolkien had them still existing to this day.

      But like I said, it’s way more complex than that. Race and the early 1900s, especially in England (for me, since I’m only well versed in US race relations) always is.

      Short answer, I don’t feel that Tolkien was purposely setting out to denigrate minority races. That, of course, doesn’t mean he didn’t inadvertently do it anyway.

      • I tend to agree with you, in that Tolkien’s racism wasn’t as overt as others of his time. *cough*Lovecraft*cough* But I still find it problematic. The goblins in that drawing look like people to me as much as the elves do. And yeah, your eugenics point is well-placed.

        But you’re right. JRR didn’t intend goblins/orcs to be human in any way (although the movies made them moreso). As opposed to the Southrons.

        • The movies definitely effect the way I see this, and I really try to ignore it. When I get home tonight, I want to dig a bit more into Tolkien and race. I know that he specifically addressed it, and want to check with that before saying anything else. Like I said, though, this would be a fine podcast topic.

            • I’ve been thinking a lot about the racism and Tolkien thing much of the day. It’s so difficult to separate the morals we have today in America with the morals they had in the 30s-60s in England. I simply don’t know what it was like for Tolkien. He explicitly stated that otherwise.

              In 1938, when the Hobbit was going to be released in Germany, the publisher there wanted documentation of Tolkien’s Aryan heritage. To that, he replied: “I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.”

              When replying to the German publisher, he wrote two drafts. In one, he pretended to be confused as to what they meant by “Aryan” – “I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”

              So, in my view at least, he wasn’t intentionally so. As he grew older, he became outspokenly anti-racism: “I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.” (1959)

              But still, there’s definitely some uncomfortable ground. For me, it’s not so much with the Orc. On Friday, I’ll post his later thoughts about them, but basically, he seemed to settle on the idea that they were well trained animals (like actual beasts), unlike all of the other races of Men, Elves and Dwarves.

              His depiction of other human races is hard to nail down, especially because he was always writing from the point of view of a specific character or group. The Silm was written from the Elvis point of view, while the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings was written from Bilbo’s/Frodo’s/etc.

              This kind of thought even came into his letters. In a 1958 letter, he described Orcs as “degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types” – but with the qualifier of “to Europeans,” there’s another point of view present. He seemed to be aware of what he was saying.

              And with the races of Men, the broad stereotypes he used in his writings were often contradicted by “bad” characters among the “good” people.

              I’d say that for its time, it’s definitely not racist. We might find it racially insensitive by our modern standards, but those standards didn’t exist then.

              What I don’t want to do is make excuses for it. Definitely some early/mid 1900s casual racial insensitivity is there, but if held up against his other comments on race, it appears to me as innocent/ignorant, rather than white supremest.

              In searching for a Tolkien letter via Google, a threat on a Stormfront (Nazi) message board came up. I’m hesitant to link to it, but the complete misunderstanding of Tolkien (and reading) is so ripe that I can’t resist. Here. If you think Tolkien might have some racist leanings, these guys are 100% sure of it and absolutely adore him for it. I don’t often try to imagine what Tolkien would think about certain things, but I’m pretty sure he’d be pissed about this.

            • First, if you don’t want to link directly to Stormfront, here’s a donotlink version: http://www.donotlink.com/d572 I love that tool. Very handy for linking to awful sites like that. It’s frightening that Nazis get so much from LoTR. JRR would be pissed, I’m sure.

              I think you’re right, that Tolkien’s racial insensitivity is that, a part of the times, even though there were a lot of people in the same time period working to fix that. It’s not actively white supremacist, but it’s definitely there. And he didn’t really hang around people who would question it either.

              I love both drafts of the letter he sent to the German publisher. He could be so snarky. 🙂

    • Me too! I had so much fun with these posts. I didn’t learn as much as I did the the loooooong Galadriel series, but this was still really fun.

  2. Orc Week is far superior to Shark Week, or any other special week I’ve come across thus far!
    I love the Polar Bear picture! To me, some of the goblins look like smallish skinny bears, or ants. I would also be mad if I were overrun by a thousand smallish bears or ants 😉

    • Shark Week used to be cool. Now it’s just fake documentaries and b-movies (fun b-movies, but still…).

      I would like to be overrun by a thousand smallish kittens. I would really really like this to happen. Soon.

  3. I’m loving Orc Week! Next time my fellow Tolkien-loving students ask me about them, I’ll have far more nerdy things to respond with than before. 🙂 And can I just mention how fascinated I am that elves were once gnomes? Whenever I think of gnomes, I think of the 80’s Nickelodeon cartoon, David the Gnome, that I watched when I was little.

    • There’s still one post left, and it deals with the post-LotR internal debate about the Orcs.

      The Noldor were first named Gnomes, which is something I’ll definitely delve into when I tackled the Silm. From what I understand, Tolkien really really wanted to use the word, and I think it’s even in the Hobbit, but due to the fact that it already meant something else (ie, David the Gnome), he changed it. I’m not 100% on that, mind you.

      Also, wasn’t David the Gnome voiced by Mr. Cunningham from Happy Days? I seem to remember that.

  4. You tell it like it is, Polar Bear!

    Ok, off the cuff question: With that reference about the orcish heart being made of stone, was this because at some point they were linked to Dwarves, like their “link” to Elves?

    • I don’t think so. He also said elsewhere that their bodies were made of stone. I think he was just being poetic and not literal. And if he was bring literal, I don’t think there’s a Dwarf connection.

  5. “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.”

    … and their lot was unhappy.” Ahahhhahhahhha no kidding. I’d be unhappy too!

    • Tolkien was so understated sometimes. Also, I’m wondering if he didn’t dip back into the old meaning of unhappy, which meant unlucky. Still a wild understatement, of course!

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