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Archetypology 101: Fact, Fiction, & Fallacies

Episode 8 - To Be Orc Not To Be

by Aeon
December 21, 2001  

If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosopher

Thok go through shiny hole. Then me fall down, but me good. Me find many good things to eat. We find village. We mash them and eat their food. Thok stop now. Head hurt from write.
- Thok, an Orc (from "Warcraft" by Blizzard Software)

This series has been, and will continue to be, about racial and character archetypes as they are found in role-playing games. At first glance, a column on orcs might seem to break that trend, since orcs are typically made out to be a faceless horde that's only good for vanquishing by other characters and races. However, of all the "monsters" that creep up within role-playing games, only the orc has ever truly managed to pull himself up from the murk to actually be considered a character of sorts (albeit typically as a half-orc), and it is because of this that they are truly a racial archetype that deserves a closer look.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons probably began the trend in the late 1970s with their half-orc racial archetype (which they removed for 2nd Edition and then put back for 3rd Edition). However, an exploration of half-orcs in and of itself would be as fruitless as an exploration of half-elves without looking at elves. This is because both half-elves and half-orc are halflings in the global definition of the word, which is to say they are both half-human. And if we remove the human half (which we, presumably, are familiar with), what we are left with is the elf, or the orc--that which is nonhuman. For this reason, to know the half-orc, we must first understand orcs.

Luckily, there are a few games in which orcs are not merely the enemy. Games like Warhammer and the infamous Blood Bowl helped make orcs and goblinoids the near equals of Dwarves (which is to say, all bloodthirsty little buggers), for example. And computer RPGs have been even more friendly to the orcs, with half-orcs and orcs appearing in everything from the classic text-based Rogue/NetHack/Angband clones to Sierra's Arcanum. This is to say nothing of the strong presence of full-blood orcs as protagonists in games like Blizzard's Warcraft: Orcs and Humans series.

Fang and Blood--The Role-Playing Orc

Verily, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.
- Friedrich Nietzsche, from "Thus Spoke Zarathustra"

Undoubtedly, half-orcs first popped into Dungeons & Dragons when someone said "Hey, we have half-elves, so why don't we have half-orcs too?" Of course, I wasn't there at the time, so I can't say for certain. Certainly, one has to wonder why there were no half-dwarves (at least until the Dark Sun campaign setting, which introduced Muls) if there were all these other half-breeds being created willy-nilly, but that's besides the point. Half-elves, right from the start, were associated with good and neutral character classes like the Bard and the Druid, and half-orcs were immediately shunted over into the "Assassin" category. The most infamous of these for Dungeons & Dragons players was Zarak, who appeared in the D&D line of action figures.

By the time AD&D 2nd Edition rolled around, saying your character was a "half-orc Assassin" was almost as redundant as saying "dwarven Fighter." Without belabouring the point, it's worth mentioning that this was most likely one of the main reasons the half-orc went away when 2nd Edition hit the shelves. Half-orcs were evil killers, and 2nd Edition was at least in part an attempt to purge all things evil from the rulebooks. Devils and demons went in the trash, and so did the foul little half-orc and the Assassin character class.

Of course, all these things finally made their way back into the rules about a decade later, with the release of Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition, and so we're pretty much back where we started from, perhaps the biggest shift being that half-orcs are now predominantly associated with Barbarians instead of Assassins. When it comes to orcs and half-orcs, this relatively minor degree of change over a fairly large amount of time a fairly important thing to notice. We can't even say "the more things change, the more they stay the same." That would be to imply change, where there has been little or none. An orc is an orc is an orc.

So what, then, is an orc?

The orc as we know him today is almost entirely a creation of J.R.R. Tolkien, who of course introduced them to the world en masse in Lord of the Rings (the book, not the movie, though we'll get to the latter in a moment). In The Hobbit, Tolkien's orcs were originally just big goblins, who themselves were described as being rather laughably froglike, big-headed and flat-footed and prone to croaking and chuckling. It is from a single offhand reference to larger mountain goblins called "orcs" (just after Bilbo runs away from Gollum in "Riddles in the Dark") that Tolkien would eventually draw the name for the larger, more serious beasts in his more adult work, Lord of the Rings.

Of course, he didn't pull the word out of thin air. The word orc (ork, orch, uruk, yrch, etc., depending on what race you are) comes from several real-life sources. According to Pliny the Elder, it was the name of a sea-monster in antiquity (from whence we get "Orcinus Orca," the proper name for killer whales). This in turn probably originated with the name of the Roman God of death, aka Orcus (more on him later), since both killer whales and orcs are associated with dangerous and deadly things. Also related to this concept of death is another possible origin, the "orc-neas" and "orc-thyrs" of Beowulf, where the term apparently has something to do with giant demons, appropriate because of the close interrelation between the word "orc" and similar monsters, like ogres and orogs. Still elsewhere, and somewhat more fancifully, there's the notion that the word orc/ork comes from the Elvish word Orok, which has to do with horrific things.

All of this is quite appropriate to the orcs of the Lord of the Rings film, in which orcs resemble nothing so much as walking elf corpses, complete with fresh mud and dirt on their bodies as they seem to rise, fully formed, from the earth. Tolkien's orcs were a little less dead and a little more beast, being described in fairly broad terms that never really laid all the cards on the table. We know that some of them had black skin, that they were intelligent enough to use scimitars, bows, drums and rams, and that they were slightly shorter than men (which would certainly put them at about elf height). Some are described as "swart, slant-eyed with thick legs and large hands" while another is described as "a short crook-legged creature, very broad and with long arms that hung almost to the ground." The Uruk-hai of Isengard were slightly beefier and more savage, and some would argue, more akin to half-orcs, since they were also apparently more cunning. All, be they man-like or ape-like, seem to have yellowish fangs, hard claws, and great strength. Their names are as savage as their demeanor: Grishnakh, Ugluk, Shagrat, Gorbag, and Mauhur, to name but a few.

Though not clearly laid out at first, Tolkien laid out in the Silmarillion the concept that orcs were in actuality corrupted dark elves (Avari) taken in the old days and twisted by Melkor and Sauron through torture and punishment until they were evil versions of their older selves. In some versions of their "history," orcs are incapable of propogating their own species because of this fact (and the fact that there are apparently no female orcs), but in other versions they are apparently able to reproduce normally. In any case, this certainly explains the reason why elves and orcs are at odds, a concept replicated time and again, albeit in slightly different ways; for example, in the Dragonlance mythos it is ogres who are evil versions of elves. However, Tolkien apparently backtracked on this a bit later, instead deciding that perhaps orcs needed to be mortal (elves being immortal), and thus suggesting that orcs came from corrupted men instead of elves. This would definitely suggest who Warcraft has elves and humans at odds, but overall it seems to be a bit wishy-washy, and certainly the elvish origin is more widely accepted on many levels.

Removed from Lord of the Rings, orcs are pretty much universally depicted as aggressive, kunckle-dragging, hirsute humanoids with greenish or grayish skin, claws and fangs or tusks, and an amazing capacity for bloodthirsty violence offset by a notable lack of intellect. In other words, the dumber half of Tolkien's orcs. Half-orcs, then, are ugly half-breeds marked by a greenish pallor, excessive body hair, small tusklike fangs and great strength, but not necessarily a prediliction for evil (chaos and barbarism, yes; evil, no). Regardless, both full-bloods and half-breeds alike tend to be nasty, violent, selfish and bullying, using strength to solve problems their relatively low intelligences cannot. Two interesting concepts can be found here: the first is the concept that orcs are widely depicted as green-skinned, and the second is that they are piglike in some regard.

The Lord of the Rings film offers orcs not as green beasts, but black-skinned humanoids with painted faces and stringy hair, closer to Tolkien's original concept; the only color Tolkien uses to describe them is black, which merely suggests a range of skin tones somewhat slightly removed from "natural" flesh tones. To explain the green color, then, we probably have to blame pulp science-fiction and the popularity of early fantasy films like The Wizard of Oz. Not only is the Wicked Witch of the West green (as are all Halloween-type witches nowadays), but green was a traditional skin tone for any evil, threatening creature or alien ever since Edgar Rice Burroughs brought the world green aliens in the 1910s (perhaps this is why 3rd Edition D&D orcs and half-orcs are gray instead of green, the X-Files having familiarized us with the notion that aliens are known as Grays, not Little Green Men). At any rate, green also suggests death and decay, mouldering and rot, and thus is something to be avoided and feared lest it spread like a gangrenous disease. Green is also the color of reptiles, frogs and lizards and dragons and crocodiles, all threatening either due to ferocity or their association with dark witchcraft. This is to say nothing of Dr. Seuss' infamous Green Eggs and Ham, which are avoided by the protagonist until the very end because they are unusual.

Green ham, of course, would be a good description for the piggish orcs found in games like Warcaft, where the creatures not only resemble tusked boars, but tend to them in pig farms as well. The association here is fairly obvious, implying that like pigs and boars, orcs are filthy, savage and unclean animals fit only for butchery. This concept is ancient, even Biblical: the reason Jewish people don't eat ham is because the cloven-hooved pig is an unclean animal, and even the New Testament seems to support this notion when Jesus drives a demon named Legion into a group of swine, sending the now possessed beasts to their deaths by drowning:

Then Jesus asked him, "What is your name?" "My name is Legion," he replied, "for we are many." And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area. A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, "Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them." He gave them permission, and the evil spirits came out and went into the pigs.
- Mark 5:9-13

To be certain, Role-Playing orcs and half-orcs are probably not derived in any real sense from some New Testament pigs, and to claim as much would be silly. But it's not too hard to see a few thousand angry pigs possessed by evil as that drastically different from an angry band of orcs, perverted by evil in their own way. In fact, the notion that orcs are somehow perverted versions of elves brings us to an even more interesting religious twist.

Fire and Brimstone--The Orc as Fallen Angel

To reign is worth ambition, though in hell:
Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.

- Satan, from "Paradise Lost" by Milton

The Lord of the Rings film is quite vivid in portraying thousands of orcs, skins blackened with soot, toiling endlessly in smoky, fire-filled pits around Saruman's tower. The hellish imagery is something that most viewers are probably familiar with--even those who don't believe in Hell as a fiery pit have certainly seen Bugs Bunny cartoons with red-skinned devils cavorting through the flames, skewering corpses of "sinners" with their pitchforks. This concept of Hell as a hot, burning place probably goes back as early as the 3rd century BCE, when the book of Enoch wrote in detail about how people could be punished in the underworld, described as Gehenna. Now more or less a synonym for Hell, Gehenna was in fact a very real place, being a literal garbage dump outside of Jerusalem filled with smoking, burning refuse and not a few burning corpses as well.

Gehenna aside, however, the modern notion of Hell most likely comes almost entirely from a single line from the Bible; namely, Revelation 20:10: "And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever." It was from this (as well as similar concepts from The Book of Enoch) that Milton was working off of when he threw Satan and the other fallen angels out of Heaven in Book I of Paradise Lost, leaving them to "Lay vanquisht, rolling in the fiery Gulf." It should come as no great shock that the fiery Hell of Paradise Lost, published in various forms between 1667 and 1674 CE, was something everyone could easily understand at the time. After all, Europeans had already lived through 150 years of persecuting "sinners" and "witches" by, among other things, burning them alive. If sinners could burn in this world, it was fairly easy to imagine them burning in the next as well. This is to say nothing of the Great Fire of London, which certainly would have seemed to be Hell on earth for those forced to live through it; the fact that this occurred in 1666 is not to be ignored.

But to get back to the point, Milton (and others) were rather keen on the idea that Satan and his fallen angels were cast out of Heaven into a fiery Hell. Granted, the idea that a group of Heaven's own were shoved aside in favor of another group was hardly novel; the Greek gods pushed the Titans aside when they took power, for instance, and the Norse Gods had their own squabbles with the Frost Giants in their time. But there's something particularly interesting about the fallen angels--namely, that they were not Gods at all.

Fallen angels have served different purposes throughout history. At times, they were merely another chunk of ancient myths in which Michael and the good angels defeated Satan and the bad angels and shoved them off a cloud, sending them falling, wings burning, until they landed in a pit of flame. More symbolically, they've represented the exact opposite of everything that it is angels stand for: ruthlessness, violence, faithlessness, sin and decay. One of these fallen angels in particular, by the name of Azazel, is orclike in his nature, most completely devoted to spreading warfare and chaos to the point where it is he who brings to mankind the knowledge of swords and shields. Whereas angels are creatures of light and order, fallen angels are dark and chaotic. Yin and Yang, good and evil, black and white, above and below, opposition taken to an unearthly extreme.

If all of this sounds familiar to readers of this series, it's because I touched on this notion in my column on Elves several months ago. In Norse mythology, there are two kinds of Elves: the beautiful, angelic, almost entirely spiritual Light Elves, or Ljosalfar, who lived in the clouds and the sky; and the dark, ugly, demonic Dark Elves, or Dopkalfar, who lived under the earth. It's not a great stretch of the imagination to view light elves as angelic, and dark elves as demonic, nor to go one step further and see dark elves and demons alike as orcish. The fact that Tolkien's orcs are immortal elves gone bad seems to make it clear that this is particularly appropriate, seeing as demons and fallen angels are, indeed, angels gone bad.

One key difference (at least at first glance) between the Dopkalfar and fallen angels is the fact that the former seemingly dwell in darkness, whereas the latter, at least in modern mythology, dwell in fire. Despite early source material, however, the idea of a hot, bright, fiery Hell is a relatively modern point of view. For the most part, ancient people believed that "Hell" (or whatever they happened to be calling the afterlife) was a place of darkness and cold, not light and heat. In the Norse underworld, either called Niflheim, the goddess Hel (from whence we get Hell) rules over a land covered in snow and ice, eternally locked in a dark winter. Not only is she the sister of a wolf and a serpent, but she was associated with hunger, misery and disease (all precursors to death, of course). Dante's Inferno (completed around 1314 CE, or roughly 350 years before Paradise Lost) features a Hell consisting not of a lake of sulfur and brimstone, but rather of personalized torment and, at its heart, ice. Hell grows colder and darker the deeper one goes, it turns out, and Satan himself is encased in dark ice at the very bottom. When Hell freezes over, indeed. In this case, Satan's moniker of Price of Darkness is much more appropriate than Lucifer (i.e., light-bringer), which is based on a mistranslation and is wholly inappropriate and unrelated to the concept of a "ruler" of Hell.

Aside from Satan, probably the best known ruler of the Underworld is the Greek Hades or Pluto (the latter his Roman name). He's the brother of Zeus, the sky/lightning God, and absolute ruler of the dark underworld where dead spirits reside. Somewhat interestingly, he's also responsible for the overthrow of the Titans, who were cast out of the Heavenly Olympus and send down to the Underworld (to Tartarus, specifically) to be tortured for all eternity. While not directly analogous to the Christian myth, once again we have a group being removed from a heavenly realm and being lorded over by a figure of darkness in an underworldly realm. Certainly, living in Hades was no picnic, but unless you were in Tartarus, it wasn't really suffering and torment. Rather, Hades was a joyless realm of shadows where the dead gradually faded away into nothingness (much like Hades himself, who possessed a magical helm of darkness which allowed him to drift into invisibility, much like the Ring-bearer in Lord of the Rings).

Of course, if we discount the Titans, we lose sight of our fallen angels in all that darkness. And there's good reason for that: darkness itself represents an even more primal fear.

Flesh and Bone--The Orc as Undead

Lisa: "Dad, we did something very BAD!"
Homer: "Did you wreck the car?"
Bart: "No."
Homer: "Did you raise the dead?"
Lisa: "Yes!"
Homer: "But the car's OK?"
Bart: "Uh-huh."
Homer: "Alright then."

- from "The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror III," by Matt Groening

Death was feared by ancient peoples not because it was a big fiery pit, but because it represented a great dark unknown, an absence of self and a removal from life. Darkness removes what we know and replaces it with nothingness, and so it is to be feared for what it conceals, and thus because of what it is. This is important to our discussion of orcs for two reasons.

First of all, there's concealment. The most primal and basic fear is arguably nyctophobia, or fear of the dark. Most children develop a fear of the dark around the age of two or three, which is when, child psychologists will tell you, a child is also starting to truly grasp the difference between the concepts of self and other. On a philosophical level, I now understand that I exist, and that others exist separate from me. When it is dark, I can no longer see myself or others, and therefore my own existence is threatened. Certainly nothing two-year-olds can express with their limited vocabularies, but the same sense of self-preservation, and fear of oblivion, is obviously being expressed in a different way. On a more practical level, the darkness not only conceals myself, but it conceals things that can harm me, boogeymen and monsters... and orcs. In prehistoric days, fire was a friend because it kept away the darkness, and thus all those sabre-toothed tigers that wanted to eat you. And even in Lord of the Rings, Aragorn warns the Fellowship away from Moria because the orcs will be coming out at night. When you can't see, you can't know, and when you don't know you can't be sure that a Grue (or a black-skinned orc) isn't going to leap up and eat you.

Secondly, there's the concept of what darkness represents. Orcs and trolls (and in older myths, dwarves) all lived underground in darkness because the light would kill them. Light and darkness, angels and demons, elves and orcs, the opposition crystal clear and symbolic of much, much larger things. In Lord of the Rings, the leader of the orcs is, of course, the Dark Lord Sauron, who wants the One Ring so he can, as the rhyme goes, "In the darkness bind them." The bright fire of Mount Doom is not feared, but is, instead, the goal. Through purging by fire, the darkness may be defeated, and the orcs vanquished. This works on many levels: if darkness is ignorance, like the ignorant orcs, then the fire represents knowledge in the world, like Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods or, to a slightly lesser degree, the flaming sword protecting the Garden of Eden, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil within it. In the Lord of the Rings film, even Sauron's eye is portrayed as a ring of fire, the flame representing his search for the knowledge within you as he peers into your soul and tempts you to join the Dark Side of the Force.

But where not even Sauron can peer is beyond the veil of darkness itself, beyond death itself. Orcs, in this way, are also feared for a much more basic reason: they bring the great, cold darkness known as death, and give us a terrifying glimpse of what lies beyond. Concepts like Hades, Tartarus, Hel and the Jewish Sheol all carried similar connotations of a general loneliness and sense of non-being, and were generally cold, dark places where spirits of the deceased congregated pointlessly. In most cases, the ruler of this realm was also quite a cold, dark figure. But more important than actually being there was getting there, and for that, the Romans had a special god.

In the Dungeons & Dragons mythos, orcs have no particularly special connection to the demon named Orcus. Orcs worship a one-eyed god named Gruumsh (one-eyed because an elven god blinded him), and Orcus himself seems to do litle except wander around tapping people with his infamous wand, killing them instantly. This is actually not entirely out of line with actual mythological fact; Orcus was actually a very real Roman deity. Often confused with Pluto, a very clear distinction can be drawn between the two: whereas Pluto/Hades was the ruler of the land of the dead, Orcus was the god of death. This becomes much more clear when you realize that Orcus was also known as Mors (from which we get words like mortal, mortuary, etc.) and, in the original Greek, Thanatos; in either case, he's more Grim Reaper than Satan, representing not the afterlife but the way in which one gets there.

The concept of Orcus was also known to the Etruscans, who built a "tomb of Orcus" in the mid 4th century BCE which featured carvings of Hades, Charon and a huge winged demonic cyclops-like figure which has at times been identified as Orcus himself. In all cases, Orcus was not a very happy, sunshiney sort of deity; his father was Night, and his twin brother was Sleep, and he was generally depicted as being a shaggy warrior who brought pain and grief in his wake. And because he was associated with death itself, he was also associated in various ways with the state of undeath typical of zombies and their ilk. In one myth, the mortal Sisyphus tells his wife not to make sacrifices to him when he dies, and then after he dies, Sisyphus complains to Orcus and Hades that he's not being honored by his wife. His ploy works: Sisyphus is allowed to return from death to the world of the living to yell at her, but when he gets there he decides instead to hang around a while longer, roaming around as an undead creature of some sort. Needless to say, this got the gods a little upset: nobody likes undead and unnatural things roaming around the world.

Tolkien himself said that Lord of the Rings is about death, and in this way his orcs share more in common with Orcus than just a few letters. Frodo must, like the heroes of Greek mythology, descend into the darkness of the underworld to drop the ring into a volcano, ever pursued and assaulted by undead Nazgul and a horde of twisted elf corpses called orcs. They represent a perversion of the elven immortality, perhaps the ultimate threat to the order of the Universe. In being made mortal by evil means, even immortality itself is threatened, raising anew that horrible dark spectre of death on the horizon.

Is it any wonder that orcs are typically depicted as hanging around with Necromancers, as in the Warcraft game, or as in the case of Lord Sauron himself? Not only do their fallen bodies make excellent zombies and skeletons, but orcs themselves represent a sort of undeath, a halfway point between the land of the dead (where they send you) and the Christian concept of demons and fallen angels (which they are, to a degree). They are, to an extent, unnatural creations of a mad scientist, like the monster in Shelley's Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, although like that monster they are not merely shambling mounds of mindless flesh. Orcs have brains, and as such they are superior to normal undead, possessing cunning and intellect (albeit often at a relatively low level). Not only do they bring the threat of death along with them, but they do it in just the sort of savage, brutal way which makes it a horrifying way to die. It's not by mere chance that the strongest and most cunning crack orc Marines in Mary Gentle's novel Grunts are the division of undead orcs.

Survival of the Fittest--The Orc as Primitive Man

I always tell young men there are three rules: They hate us, we hate them; they're stronger, they're smarter; and most important: they don't play fair.
- Jack Nicholson

The famed orcish brutality opens up another interesting avenue of exploration: that orcs represent the baser instincts of mankind itself, and in that way represent primitive man. Certainly, on some levels descriptions of orcs read like a scientific description of Neanderthal man: the latter are, like orcs, a bit shorter than contemporary men, with a prominent brow, a sloping forehead, a heavy, jutting jawbone and extremely large front teeth/fangs. Their heavy, squat build gave them powerful muscles, and their thick skin made them well adapted to living in harsh climates. They were skilled hunters and carnivores and probably had limited linguistic capabilities. Of course, they were also deemed (perhaps by other men, perhaps by natural selection) inferior to modern Homo sapiens, and for that reason they also suffered the unfortunate (and rather orc-like) experience of getting wiped out for being in the way about 35,000 years ago.

Neanderthal or not, even a description of orcish culture resembles commonly held stereotypes about "cavemen," and at an even more basic level, orcs could easily be seen as representing a more primitive form of mankind, namely, the apes. Their lumbering gait and long arms certainly resemble that of gorillas and orangutans, and is there really much difference between Gimli cursing the orcs, and Charlton Heston uttering the infamous "damn dirty apes" line in Planet of the Apes? Mankind is civilized and advanced and lives in tall white castles and high towers, and has running water and clean laundry and religion and schools and agriculture. Orcs live in squalor, warlike tribes competing for females and food, living in communal caves and venturing forth to do battle and hunt. If they're intelligent, why haven't they advanced like other races? There are two possibilities: that they don't want to, or that they are unable to.

The latter possibility itself suggests a subtle form of fantasy racism whether the source of their struggle is external or not. If orcs are unable to advance themselves socially and intellectually because other races won't let them, then the orcs are being subjugated and pushed aside because they are deemed not worthy of advancement, and the problem of racism is an in-game issue. And if the orcs are unable to advance because they are not intellectually capable of doing so, then one has to question role-playing games themselves, as well as their sources, for creating an intelligent race that is mentally inferior to other races.

In either case, the problem arises because unlike the other races, orcs are described as bestial, primitive, soulless and generally evil. Elves are beautiful, dwarves are grumpy, hobbits are clever, men are noble, and orcs are foul evil creatures that need to be destroyed. Because of this, men, elves, dwarves and hobbits are all accepted on some level as being intellectually and morally superior to orcs. Granted, if you accept that all mankind is doing is defending itself against attack, then it's possible to argue that the orcs must be vanquished, but it's all too easy to drift into genocide in cases like that. Certainly, Gimli and Legolas competing to see who can kill the most orcs is amusing, but what if you take it to the next level and have countries competing to see who can wipe the orcs off the face of the planet the fastest. Does being dangerous, primitive or inferior mean that you don't deserve to live? If so, mankind could easily argue for the extinction of sharks, or lions, or bears. And rather than exterminate those, we typically try to save them.

Orcs are the stereotypical bad guys, the reason to march off to war. They are not just Nazis, but Storm Troopers and Klingons and Romulans, a subtly dehumanized way to kill other creatures without feeling bad about it. This is just the sort of behavior that's gotten mankind into trouble again and again in the real world. It's the argument that was used by various sides in World War II propoganda, Nazi Germany pushing for extermination of Jews, Americans clamoring to kill the Krauts and Japs. It's the same sort of racial profiling that's going on, to some degree, as I write this, as people with Arabic names are being rounded up and questioned by American authorities because they might be a threat. If Tolkien's elves rounded up all the orcs after the war, simply because they might be a threat in the future, would it be any different? This is not to say that orcs represent Jews or Germans or Arabs or anyone else in particular. Certainly, it's been alleged that in creating Lord of the Rings, Tolkien was actually (at least in part) writing about World War I and II. And Nitpickers can easily find evidence to support this theory: the spiked German-style helmets of the orcs, the "eagles" constantly swooping in to rescue people representing the Americans, and the devestating effect of the ring being cast into Mount Doom representative of bombing of Hiroshima.

When it comes to orcs, however, all this is a moot point. Orcs need not represent any other race for their treatment as an inferior race to be pointed out. The fact of the matter is that there are few, if any, good, peaceful orcs to be found in role-playing games, and there are none in Tolkien's novel. There are good and bad hobbits (Gollum was a hobbit, my precious), good and bad dwarves, good and bad Wizards, and good and bad humans, but all elves are good and all orcs are evil. Angels and fallen angels once again, but also something more subtle and earthly. For in the elves, we have a race that can do no wrong as it wipes out inferior races wherever it finds them. Indeed, one of the reasons the elves don't get along with dwarves is because elves used to hunt them down for sport, thinking they were mindless primitives. The elves were forgiven for that, and certainly Legolas and Gimli seem to get along. But orcs are just meat to be chopped up, evil, foul creatures not worthy of being saved. Elves are beautiful and shining and intelligent, and orcs are ugly and brutal and dumb.

Quite important to note here is the fact that orcs themselves are hardly innocent parties here: they partake of the slaughter as well, dishing it out as well as they take it. And it's in this fact that we can perhaps try to understand exactly why orcs have managed to survive as role-playing characters at all.

Closing Comments

Scott: I hate you.
Dr. Evil: Can I have a hug?
Scott: No.
Dr. Evil: Give me a hug.
Scott: No way.
Dr. Evil: Come here.
Scott: I'm not coming over there.
Dr. Evil: Let's go.
Scott: Forget it.
Dr. Evil: Pronto.
Scott: What are you doing?
Dr. Evil: I'm hip. (he does the Dr. Evil Macarena) Well, don't look at me like I'm frickin' Frankenstein. Give your father a hug.
Scott: Get away from me you lazy-eyed psycho!

- dialogue between Dr. Evil and his son, from "Austin Powers"

The Austin Powers film (and its sequel) spawned a series of action figures and toys which have absolutely nothing to do with orcs or role-playing. But it does, I think, help to explain a little bit about orcs when I mention that Dr. Evil figures outsold Austin Powers figures something like two to one, despite the fact that Dr. Evil was, as his name suggests, the bad guy. Somewhat more importantly, Dr. Evil was also a hunchbacked freak of a man, balding and overweight, constantly trying to take over the world while Austin Powers tried to stop him. Even when he tried to bond with his son (created, interestingly, through an unnatural cloning experiment, as with orcs), his son rejected him as a hideous freak. Is it any wonder that Dr. Evil was evil? Nobody loved him.

On some level, orcs are certainly the embodiment of evil, and in particular immortal evil, representing a threat to mortal creatures both on a physical and a spiritual plane. On another level, they represent the threat of death and darkness, a powerful force sweeping out of the night to kill those we love and send us into oblivion. On a more physical level, orcs represent mankind's own primitive urges and violent tendencies, as well as a fear of the unknown and a tendency to want to push aside those things that don't fit neatly into our picture of the world. And on a more basic level, it could certainly be argued rather convincingly that most fantasy role-playing isn't about role-playing, but about killing, and if you're going to be killing then creating a race of savage killers isn't really surprising, even if it is somewhat disturbing on some levels.

Taken together, all of these things wind up giving us orcs that are all little Dr. Evils, ugly little monsters running around doing evil things and forcing good people to take action. And despite that, or more likely, because of that, people tend to bond with them on some level. Not because all people are inherently evil or nasty or brutal, but because there's a part of the human consciousness that understands it. All races, real or fantastic, come from more primitive stuff. Society advances, intelligence and knowledge grow, but a tree has roots, and it's within those roots that we discover a lot about the nature of being. Sometimes we just want to explore the dark side of the street, to better understand the things we don't know about, to learn a bit more about evil and death and darkness and our own primitive past. And of course, sometimes, we just want to kill stuff too. After all, t history of mankind has been shapedd not by long stretches of peace, but through struggle and warfare, and orcs and half-orcs represent that better than anything else. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Archetypology 1010 columns by Aeon

  • Episode 11 - In Closing... April 30, 2002
  • Episode 10 - Human, All Too Human March 19, 2002
  • Episode 9 -- Death Before Dishonor January 31, 2002
  • Episode 8 - To Be Orc Not To Be December 21, 2001
  • Episode 7 - Roll up for the magical mystery tour November 27, 2001
  • Episode 6 - Kings under the mountain October 18, 2001
  • Episode 5 - Rebel without a CAWS September 18, 2001
  • Episode 4 - In a hole in the ground... August 17, 2001
  • Episode 3 - Thick as Thieves July 13, 2001
  • Episode 2 - Elves Have Left The Building June 15, 2001
  • Episode 1 - Holy Rollers May 23, 2001
  • Who Are You? April 20, 2001

    Other columns at RPGnet

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