Let Us Now Praise Famous Orcs: Simple Humanity in Tolkien's Inhuman Creatures
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In J.R.R. Tolkien’s sprawling legendarium, Orcs provide a seemingly endless supply of enemies to challenge the mettle of the noble Elves, Men, Dwarves, and Hobbits. As every reader of the books (and every viewer of the blockbuster films) knows, Orcs are the inevitable foot soldiers of “evil,” employed by both the traitorous wizard Saruman and the Great Enemy Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, forming the infantry of Morgoth’s vast armies in The Silmarillion, and being the one race against which all others unite in The Hobbit’s Battle of Five Armies. For the most part, good and evil are strictly demarcated in Tolkien’s world (with a few interesting exceptions), but, even by that almost Manichean standard, Orcs are presented with surprising uniformity as loathsome, ugly, cruel, feared, and especially terminable. Yet, as dedicated readers discern, Tolkien could not resist the urge to flesh out and “humanize” these inhuman creatures from time to time. In such examples as those I discuss in this essay, Tolkien presents Orcs who have human—even humane—qualities, notwithstanding their generally negative characteristics. This fact makes it a bit disturbing, then, that Tolkien’s heroes, without the least pang of conscience, dispatch Orcs by the thousands. Indeed, letters and unpublished manuscripts reveal that Tolkien himself struggled with the metaphysical and moral problems he had set up by inventing and using Orcs as he does. Orcs may just be deserving of a bit more respect than we've given them.