My childhood was filled with fantastical tales. I did not grow up on J.R.R. Tolkien’s work because by the 1980s, most of the shelves were filled with the derivatives and the knock offs. I grew up on Dragonlance and Raymond E. Feist.
Yet, the primary races – the elves and the orcs, came from Tolkien. He set the bar. Tolkien laid out how theses species acted and were they came from. But where did orcs come from? I loved these green skins – I built orc armies in Warhammer and wanted to know more about Moria orcs and Mordor orcs in Lord of the Rings.
Orcs were made in Lord of the Rings from the corrupted forms of East Elves (Avari), humans, and lesser spirits. Some may have been lesser maiar. Many were capable of breeding and were bred with men to form half-orcs and Uruk-hai. Melkor had to corrupt them because only Ilúvatar could create life.
Let’s look into it in more depth.
What are orcs in Middle-Earth?
Orcs are one of the main antagonists of the Lord of the Rings. They are not a primary character in themselves, but form the foot soldiers. They are to Lord of the Rings what Stormtroopers are to Star Wars – only in my opinion, far more interesting.
Not only are orcs fascinating in themselves and are a deadly threat to the forces of good in the novels, they are deeply rooted in English mythology. This meant their meaning and origin was important to J.R.R. Tolkien and it is something he thought about at great length throughout his life. This article will attempt to work out how orcs were made in Middle Earth.
Etymology of orc – our first clue
Let’s remember that Tolkien was a philologist and that means words are of great importance to him – as it should to all of us. He believed in precision and deep meanings for words. The same is true of the word orc for it is not an invented word, but comes to us from Old English.
For example, we find it in the form of orcneas in Beowulf (line 112):
Eotenas and ylfe and orcneas
This is usually translated as:
Jotuns and elves and orcs
Though Tolkien was quite sneaky here, as noted by esteemed Tolkien expect, Tom Shippey, when he translated the line to “Eoten, goblins and orcs.” However, Tolkien’s love of elves and the Beowulf poet’s dislike of all things mythic is another essay.
The word orc is derived from the English word orcneas though the online etymological dictionary likens it to the Romance word, Ogre and has them both go back to the Latin word Orcus or a common Proto-Indo-European root – one that is unknown.
Orcus in Latin means ‘hell’ whereas orcneas is commonly translated as ‘demon corpse’, so you can see the connection both in terms of meaning and form.
What did Tolkien think about the etymology of Orc?
We can turn to the commentary on Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf (2014, p.163) for interpretation of orc and why it is translated as ‘demon corpse.’
As noted above, Orc is derived from the same root which gave us the Latin word for Hell (orcus) whereas neas is the plural form of né meaning dead body. Né is not a word in common Old English parlance, but more of a poetic or ornamental word. Another example, as cited by Tolkien (or his son Christopher in the commentary) is ne-fugol (corpse-fowl) or what we now call a carrion bird.
This may be why when we first encounter Sauron in The Hobbit he is known as a necromancer – someone who brings the dead back to some kind of animation if not life (full life would be a resurrecter).
Of course at the time Tolkien’s had no full notion of who the necromancer was. Yet it remains that there are no zombies or skeletons or mummies around. Instead there are hordes of orcs in his service and they are after ring and mountain. In the appendices of Lord of the Rings and in the movie versions of the Hobbit, we learn Sauron has also brought back the black riders in another piece of necromancy.
How were orcs born?
From this etymological study we may conclude that Tolkien’s orcs were the corrupted corpses of men. Perhaps they were demons trapped in the rotting bodies of fallen humans – particularly males (were-men). However, Tolkien went and made how orcs were created in the Lord of the Rings a lot more complicated.
Tolkien’s 7 proposed origins for orcs in Middle-Earth
It seems Tolkien could not decide on the nature or creation of orcs. His works changed a lot over the years and gives truth to the adage that art is never finished.
- Mud-born: Tolkien’s earliest writings on orcs from 1917 (The Fall of Gondolin and The Book of Lost Tales) say Morgoth made orcs from slime and heat in the earth.
- Natural beasts: In some texts Tolkien theorised that orcs might be sentient beasts of human form, but which were soulless. Perhaps this is to account for the néas element of orcneas, which suggests a departed soul or in this case, a nonexistent one.
- Fallen Maiar: In ‘Myths Transformed’ in Morgoth’s Ring (2002, X, p.415-24), Tolkien outlines some ideas regarding orcish origins. This includes the notion that some of the greater orcs such as the Goblin King in The Hobbit were fallen or corrupted Maiar.
- Corrupted men: When Tolkien began to feel uncomfortable about some of the other origins of orcs, he turned to mankind. The only problem here would be that the time of Arda, the awakening of man, would need to happen earlier to allow for man’s corruption into orc form.
- The Avari: His first notion of corruption came in the form of the East Elves – the Avari. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien says that Melkor captured the minds of the Avari and twisted them and their bodies to fit his needs, thus creating orcs. This could explain the long life of some orcs – Bolg is alive 140 years after the death of his father Azog (though not in the silly movies).
- Cross-bred with men: Under Sauron humans and orcs crossbred. The Uruk-hai are suggested (by Treebeard) to be from this union. There is much talk of half-orcs, man-orcs, man-goblins, and so on in The Lord of the Rings and other texts.
- Corrupted elf-men mixes: Tolkien added a note to Morgoth’s Ring, time unknown but possibly after 1969, where he suggested orcs were a mixed race derived from corrupted humans, elves, and minor spirits mixed together.
How were orcs created in Lord of the Rings?
J.R.R. Tolkien passed away before deciding upon how orcs were made in Lord of the Rings. We could look at the 7 answers as the theories of non-orcs who do not know the answer or we could look at a combination of all of them. Perhaps it is best to work through the logic of Middle Earth.
Notion 1 – Only Ilúvatar could create life: It is well established in Middle Earth that only the one God could create life. This is shown in how Ilúvatar granted the dwarfs to Aule as a gift. Aule was a Valar as was Morgoth. They could not create life themselves, but could work on and alter that which Ilúvatar created. If Morgoth could not do it then a lesser being like Sauron could not either. Therefore we can rule out theory no.1 – the mud-born orcs.
Notion 2 – Would Ilúvatar create evil life?: The natural beasts theory rests on the idea that Ilúvatar created orcs and other evil creatures. We know Balrogs were created out of lesser Maiar – they were corruptions. We also know Sauron was able to corrupt Saruman or at least bring him onside. Therefore it is possible that the orcs were a separate species which were corrupted by Morgoth – this would make them alive and capable of reproduction.
Notion 3 – The Né is not specific or even present: The corpse element of néas is not specific though usually assigned to men. However, Tolkien’s orcs do not have the néas element at all in their name, so do not have to be corpses at all. The lack of specificity does mean that they could be both humans and Avari or even hobbits or dwarfs for that matter.
Notion 4 – The orcs lack power: Orcs are footpads and grunts. They range is size and ability, and while many are fiercer and stronger than humans, they themselves possess no special powers. Indeed they struggle in daylight and require darkness and cloudy days to get around (how they must love England). This lack of power combined with their number would suggest they are not fallen maiar.
Notion 5 – Morgoth corrupts: We’ve established that Morgoth corrupts. He made balrogs out of Maiar and he turned others to his side. It seems natural that he would seek to corrupt the living too – both immortal and mortal, and to bind them to his side. While there are wildlings and easterlings in the armies of Sauron, for the main part the bad guys are orcs and monsters.
Notion 6 – what if Treebeard was right?: Treebeard speculates that the Uruk-Hai were crossbreeds made by Saruman. There is no evidence to suggest he is correct, but none also to prove him wrong. What if Saruman had been able to crossbreed orcs with humans? Well, if this is the case, then orcs must be fertile otherwise it would require life creating magic which we’ve established only Ilúvatar possesses. This would mean orcs were not demon corpses in Lord of the Rings, but were living, breathing animals corrupted by Morgoth.
Conclusion – What then is the final answer?
If we take on the behaviours of Ilúvatar and Morgoth, and we take into account the etymology of orcneas we come to the conclusion that the orcs were born of corruption. They were not created as is by Ilúvatar, but were living beings twisted by Morgoth.
In being living beings they were able to breed and continue their line. I would suggest this is backed up by Treebeard’s notions, but also by Saruman’s ability to breed orcs with humans to make uruk-hai.
I’d suggest Tolkien’s late note drew everything together. Morgoth/Melkor corrupted different groups into a mass known as orcs. Some had minor powers and some possessed long lives due to elvish or maiar blood, but being tied to the earth made them less powerful over time.
In addition to the articles linked to above, I have consulted the following books:
Shippey, Tom, 2005, The Road to Middle Earth – Revised Edition, Harper Collins, London
Tolkien, J.R.R., 2002, Morgoth’s Ring: The History of Middle Earth Volume 10, Harper Collins, London
Tolkien, J.R.R., 2006, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Harper Collins, London
Tolkien, J.R.R., 2014, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary together with Sellic Spell, Harper Collins, London