Orcs: Beasts of Humanized Shape – Tolkien Contradicts the Silmarillion

A discussion about Orcs will almost always become a discussion about how they come into being – something for which Tolkien had several contradictory answers. It’s not surprising that in the two posts from earlier this week, I couldn’t help but look into their origin, their creation by Morgoth. From before 1920 through writing the Hobbit and even part of the Silmarillion in 1937, this was the origin Tolkien had settled upon.

When it came time to write the sequel to the Hobbit, he had already begun to consider a different scenario – that Morgoth had based his creation of Orcs upon the Elves, specifically to make a mockery of the Children of Ilúvatar. This was also carried through the Lord of the Rings.

Treebeard postulated that “Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves.” But the more he wrote about Orcs, the less they seemed like inhuman monsters created by Morgoth.

In Lord of the Rings, we see very human-like conversations between Orcs, even more so than in the Hobbit. For instance, after Frodo had been stung by Shelob, two Orc captains – the wonderfully-named Gorbag and Shagrat – discuss the supposed “large warrior” that is Sam, who had seemingly left Frodo behind. This, said one, was a “regular elvish trick,” which really makes it seem like an Orc is morally judging an Elf, and if he were correct with the fact, I’d say “and rightly so.”

Orcs, it seems, have their own morality, which, in this specific case regarding loyalty, is not too different from our own. In other, more unpleasant, ways, the Orcs seem to act more like humans than is comfortable. We could easily compare the hobbits’ treatment of the Old Forest with what the Orcs did to the forest around Orthanc.

In other places, we see Orcs marching, and sometimes catch a quick glimpse of their small talk and flashes of their behavior, none of which seems overtly inhuman. As much as we’d love to pretend that we are more like Elves than Orcs, we have to face the truth that we are much more Orc-like than Elvish.

Tolkien certainly could have written the Orcs as hordes of mindless soldiers without personality – he had been doing so for decades. But in Lord of the Rings he didn’t. He purposely chose to humanize them.

However, in doing so, he also created a dilemma. While we naturally side with the Good, the Elves and Men, we often end up feeling bad for the Orcs. We are not helped away from this line of thought when Elrond says things like: “For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so.”

Even through all of this, Tolkien’s idea that Morgoth created the Orcs as they were, as mockeries of Elves, remained. But this would not stand for much longer.

Tolkien finished up the manuscript for Lord of the Rings in 1947, and it would take years to be finally published in 1954-55. As the final copy was being prepared, in 1954 Tolkien replied to a slew of questions from Naomi Mitchison, who had been reading page-proofs of the Fellowship and Two Towers. Concerning the Orcs, he had this to say:

“Orcs… are nowhere clearly stated to be of any particular origin. But since they are servants of the Dark Power, and later of Sauron, neither of whom could, or would, produce living things, they must be ‘corruptions’.”

This was a massive retcon, yet not a surprising one, especially considering that none of the Silmarillion material had ever been published. That same year, he did his best to explain it in another letter. Tolkien allowed that Morgoth could create things that “would at least ‘be’ real physical realities in the physical world, however evil they might prove.”

These creations would be “Morgoth’s greatest Sins, abuses of his highest privilege, and would be creatures begotten of Sin, and naturally bad.” He went on to clarify that Orcs were “irredeemably bad,” simply because they could not be redeemed. They were beyond redemption, because if they could be saved, then “even Orcs would become a part of the World, which is God’s and ultimately good.”

And so he reiterated his new idea, that he “represented at least the Orcs as pre-existing beings on whom the Dark Lord has exerted the fullness of his power in remodelling and corrupting them, and not making them.”

Obviously still unable to decide how Orcs could fit into his “theory and system,” he drafted an essay in the late 1950s to work it out. He first laid out his dilemma. The Dwarves had been created by Aulë, but only given freewill and reasoning by Illuvatar, who adopted them as sort of step-children. Since the Orcs seemed to display both freewill and reasoning, “they must be corruptions of something pre-existing.”

He then had the choice between Men and Elves to choose from. But since Men were awoken after the Orcs, and Elves were immortal (apparently unlike his conception for Orcs), he was faced with another impasse. “Elves as a source,” he concluded then, “are very unlikely.”

Tolkien thus proposed an incredible idea: “is it likely or possible that even the least of the Maiar would become Orcs?” Sauron was one of the Maiar who had been corrupted and sided with Morgoth, so why not the Orcs? To this question, Tolkien answered “Yes.”

So if the lesser Maiar could become Orcs, Tolkien reasoned, they could procreate as Elves and Men and thus become “more and more earthbound, unable to return to spirit-state (even demon-form), until released by death….” When they died, they would be damned, as was Sauron.

This, however, provided him with another problem. If they had been Maiar, which were noncorporeal, Ilúvatar would have had to provide souls for them from the beginning – a proposition which Tolkien couldn’t allow.

One of the biggest hang ups for Tolkien was that the Orcs could speak, which seemed to indicate that they had souls. To get around that, he wrote: “I think it must be assumed that ‘talking’ is not necessarily the sign of the possession of a ‘rational soul’….”

He ultimately concluded (in this same essay):

“Orcs were beasts of humanized shape (to mock Men and Elves) deliberately perverted/converted into a more close resemblance to Men. Their ‘talking’ was really reeling off ‘records’ set in them by Melkor.”

Their speech, given to them by Melkor, evolved with their species from that point on. Their independence could be categorized as that of “dogs or horses of their human masters.” In this last bit, he was saved by a line in Appendix F that states that the “Black Speech was devised by Sauron in the Dark Years.”

And just when things seemed to be gaining some sort of clarity, Tolkien muddied the waters by confusingly allowing (still in the same essay) the idea that it was “terribly possible there was an Elvish strain in the Orcs.” He suggested that they could have been mated with the Elves and Men. This might have been written to allow for the a few random half-orcs (like the swarthy fellow in Bree).

So then under what authority does the published Silmarillion state: “that all those of the Quendi who came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves….”

This section of the published Silmarillion was taken from the Annals of Amman, written in 1951-52, before Tolkien had actually figured this out. Curiously, there’s a note in the margin of this same manuscript where he jotted: “Alter this. Orcs are not Elvish.”

It seems then that Tolkien did not make this change until the late 1950s, and that his last impression of the origin of he Orcs was that they were soulless beasts created by Melkor. And yet, he never went back to change it in any of the writings that were used to construct the published Silmarillion.

Tolkien was the absolute king of retroactive continuity. He began in 1916 by stating that Meklor had created the Orcs, and concluded his writings on the subject saying the same thing. And yet, across the gulf of decades, what it meant for Melkor to create, and what that meant for the Orcs, changed drastically. It is only the published Silmarillion that leads us astray from what Tolkien’s true (and ultimate) intentions seemed to be. And yet, we have little choice but to accept it as canon – that the Orcs were bred from enslaved and corrupted Elves.

Camera: Kodak Brownie No. 2 Model D (1914) Film: Fomapan 400

Camera: Kodak Brownie No. 2 Model D (1914)
Film: Fomapan 400

A Few Notes

  • There is a manuscript from 1950ish that the Elves, upon first seeing the Orcs, speculated that they were corrupted Avari – an incredibly fun idea that I wish Tolkien would have explored.
  • When I first write these posts, I tend not to look too far ahead in my research. I love being surprised by what I find. This one was simply delicious.

About the Photo
This is – by far – my favorite photo of Goblin Valley, Utah. It was taken with a camera that predates even the earliest of Tolkien’s writings (a 1914 Kodak Brownie). It reminds me of a photo from the Civil War prison Andersonville (as seen here and even here). And that brings to mind all sorts of horrible Morgoth/Sauron prison camps scenarios.


  • Miles today: 20
  • Miles thus far: 1234 (320 miles since leaving Lothlórien)
  • 69 miles to the Falls of Rauros
  • 539 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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17 thoughts on “Orcs: Beasts of Humanized Shape – Tolkien Contradicts the Silmarillion

    • Yeah… Thinking about that too much is just nasty. Really nasty. There’s just no pleasant way to even consider how that would have happened.

      In the end, I think he made the right choice. They were beasts – smart dogs given speech by Morgoth and bred to be what they became. Shame that the Silmarillion makes them corrupted Elves, which really just raises more questions than answers.

      • Actually from what Christopher Tolkien collected in tomes of HoME , he stated that the final thought his father had about Orc origin is that they come from Men, those Maiar-shaped Orcs are mentioned that they would be rather minority among their number, as great leaders surpassing in power other Orcs, spies and special messangers among the ordinary ones that were rational incarnates, while Maiar in their very nature are not, though they may approach close to that state.

        • Hey! Thanks for the comments, I really appreciate it.

          Where does Christopher Tolkien state that Orcs deriving from Men was the last thought on it? I thought it was strange that the last one that I could find was from the 50s. Tolkien changed his mind on pretty much everything after that, but I couldn’t find where he did so with the origin of the Orcs.

          • In those tomes of HoME where whole essay on Orc origin there is also this commentary of Christopher Tolkien where he states that Orcs from Men appears to be last thought of Tolkien but that of course causes other problems within legendarium 🙂 with the early timeline, unless the Orcs that appeared before Men were indeed of elvish strain but hehe that’s a topic for discussion among Tolkien fans for a long time hehe.

    • He doesn’t. Any mention of breeding usually has to do with crossbreeding. But in vague terms, he indicated that there were by saying that they bred as Men and Elves. It could be a situation like the Dwarves at best, and hives/baby making places at worst.

      • “There must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known’.” J.R.R. Tolkien, one of his letters.

        Also the fact that Bolg is son of Azog, the fact that Gollum ate a little ‘goblin-imp’ described as ”nasssty young squeaker” which strongly indicates an Orc-child (even later on our precious sneak had bad fame as child-eater from stories of Woodmen of Mirkwood, stating that he crept through windows to find cradles though those might be simply rumors) and even published Silm gives line ”for the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Iluvatar”. As for alternate theories of their origin Tolkien never resolved this for sure :).

        The letter that spoke of ‘naturally bad’ orcs also states that he nearly wrote irredeemable but he corrects himself saying that it would be going too far. In my head I still find the idea orcs from elves as intriguing and showing Morgoth all the more monstrous in his deed (humans as source idea is maybe reasonable since even when not altered by magic humans can act very much like orcs 🙂 but it’s more horrifying to think that such powerful being, the mightiest after Iluvatar in Ea the universe, could corrupt so magnificent beings like elves that were in many ways better than humans, though they themselves are not infallible and have their flaws and commit evil acts with even worse consequences, even divine beings in Tolkien’s world are not infallible, even great Valar can at least err or have selfish motives).

  1. I love Elrond’s line about Sauron, one of the saddest most bittersweet lines in the entire book. Surpassed shortly afterwards by Frodo saying he “will take the ring, though I do not know the way.”
    Tolkien was the master of these sad, touching, and revealing statements about reality. He and Bodhidharma could have hung out and wrote poetry together.

    • In looking at the Ainulindale, there’s really no difference at all between any of the Ainur, whether it’s the Valar or Maiar or even the Ainur who stayed behind, there’s not even a designation until time starts happening (apart from Melkor).

      Tolkien really did convey suffering and sadness well – as any reading of the Children of Hurin will show. But so much is in LotR as well.

      • In Ainulindale there are mentioned differences in their personalities, the fact that they come from different aspects/parts of Iluvatar’s mind, offspring of his thoughts, and each understands of the mind of their maker only that part from which he came. But it’s not the point of the text, it’s main interest is to present certain genesis for his imaginary world (also in-universe it is probably short version of this event, the Great Music as comprehended by elves, which they heard from the Powers and their servants first-hand written in the elven texts, which are contained within Bilbo’s ‘Translations from Elvish’). The Ainur in there only start to comprehend and understand each other, testing their own skills, learning to cooperate and even starting to clash in their strong individualities. There is certainly innate distinction for each of them, as well as in their nature each is either male or female, though their gender is understood differently than physical aspect. Also in Ainulindale we see how in their music Ainur express themselves, some show they are weaker and might get confused, drawn to stronger theme of Melkor, but of course then all of them are simply Ainur, the greatest and most powerful become Valar and lesser ones Maiar once entering the universe which is yet unshaped.

  2. Wow, you never fail to deliver such informative posts! 🙂
    I guess I’m just gonna pretend that orcs came from both corrupted Elves and beasts with humanized shape; and that the Orcs we see in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were descended from the many centuries of interbreeding of these two types. Yup that’s my new headcanon. Also Morgoth is a terribly disgusting perv.
    Moving on to a nicer (and not entirely off-topic) subject: That whole thing with the lesser Maiar may not exactly work for the orcs, but I am very inclined to entertain that concept as a possible explanation for Beorn’s ancestry. 🙂

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