Even Tolkien was never really sure where orcs came from

However, The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will get there.

This week’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power dives into Tolkien legend and the far-flung birth of sentient life on Middle-earth to address a topic that even the professor couldn’t answer: Where do orcs come from?

[Editor’s note: This article includes spoilers for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power episode 6].

Even Tolkien was never really sure where orcs came from

Many story lines intersect in “Udûn,” the third-to-last episode of Rings of Power’s first season – most significantly for our purposes, Galadriel meets Adar, the elf-like entity whom the orcs besieging Ostirith name father.

“When I was a kid,” she says, referring to a long time ago, “I heard stories of elves captured by Morgoth; tormented, twisted, and transformed into a new and broken form of existence.” You’re one of them, aren’t you? The Moriondor’s name. The sons of the night. “The very first orcs.” Orcs are “a mistake, formed in mocking” of existence, according to her.

Adar responds that he likes the name “uruk,” and that his “children” have no master, no longer work for Sauron or Morgoth, and deserve their own place in the — well, not quite in the sun. “Each one has a name and a heart,” he responds. We, too, are creatures of the One, Master of the Secret Fire. As deserving of life’s breath as it is of a home.”

Rings of Power is taking up a puzzle box that even Tolkien couldn’t solve: the genesis of orcs. But, before we go into the mythology at work here, let’s explain some of the phrases Adar tossed around.


Even Tolkien was never really sure where orcs came from

Anyone who knows Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy would recognize the sound “Uruk.” It simply means “orc” in Mordor’s Black Speech, which is another way of stating “what orcs call themselves in their own language.” (Uruk-hai translates as “orc-people” or “orc-folk.”) Orc Folk is also my favorite musical subgenre.)

The “One” alludes to Eru Ilvatar, Middle-greatest earth’s god who created the planet, its gods — the Valar — and its mortal inhabitants (elves, men, etc.). The “Secret Fire” is the divine energy Eru used to create anything from nothing, but it is primarily regarded as the capacity that forges live creatures with souls and personalities from plain animal flesh. Eru is known as the Master of the Secret Fire because he alone has the ability to generate new life.

Which begs the question, if Eru can create people, who created the orcs?


The short answer is that Tolkien never truly decided on an answer since he couldn’t solve the fundamental difficulty with the notion of a “monstrous race of sentients” before he died.

Galadriel’s conception of orc origins in The Rings of Power is quite similar to that of The Silmarillion. It claims that “nothing is known of a certainty,” but it was “considered true by the wise” that Morgoth created the orcs “through gradual arts of pain” done on elves kidnapped in the dark days before the Valar could discover them. These eldest elves’ brains and bodies were “corrupted and enslaved” into orcs “in jealousy and mocking of the Elves” – Morgoth’s envy of Eru’s unique capacity to create life.”Deep within their dark souls, the Orcs despised the Master whom they feared, the single source of their sorrow.” This may have been Melkor’s most heinous act, and the most despised by Ilvatar.”

The lengthier answer is that Tolkien invented numerous hypotheses for the origin of orcs and could have devised more if he had more time. Morgoth fashioned the orcs from stone in early versions of his legendarium. Tolkien composed the version that Christopher picked for The Silmarillion in the 1950s, when it was widely assumed that the earliest orcs were tainted elves.

However, in later years, Tolkien started to wrestle with wide and fundamental alterations to Middle-cosmology, earth’s which he was never able to complete or finalize. And in these years, he seemed to have understood the paradox of it being completely heroic to slay orcs at any chance, despite the fact that they looked to have free choice in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Even Tolkien was never really sure where orcs came from

Tolkien’s orcs, after all, had military ranks. They fought, moaned about their directives, and muttered nasty little jokes. They were, in many respects, the result of Tolkien’s most terrible personal experiences as a footsoldier in the British army during WWI: a people continually engaged in, and welcoming of, war, bureaucracy, and petty obedience, with no feeling of community or solidarity other than obeying orders. Mordor was a foxhole, full of the worst individuals and officers, a battle with no camaraderie or worthy purpose other than “the boss instructed you to.”

Tolkien investigated the possibility that orcs were produced from corrupted humans, elves, disembodied spirits, and creatures — stolen by Morgoth and fashioned into a parody of Eru’s creations. The dark deity and source of all evil filled them with his own will and nature, causing them to argue and even betray him, but only because of his universal hatred of all living things, including themselves.

Tolkien was functioning on the ideas of a man who openly opposed apartheid and Nazi Germany, but all he had to work with were the tools of a Catholic Englishman born in South Africa at the end of the Victorian era. Whether orcs are made of stone, monsters, or corrupted people, their origin is essentially a romanticized version of the kinds of legends racists have long concocted to justify why it’s OK to brutalize fellow human beings.The notion that a group of people may be essentially wicked — the “monster race” — is a thorn at the core of much of the fantasy fiction that evolved out of Tolkien’s work, in ways that are still being analyzed and untangled today.

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