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  • Writer's pictureJon Bolitho-Jones

A little about Orcs

Orcs! They’re a funny species. Most people probably recognise them from the Lord of the Rings as evil henchmen who are ugly, cruel, prone to violence, and not very smart. They are also not the strongest of enemies and highly expendable, the Imperial Stormtroopers of the fantasy world. No one generally has any qualms about the heroes chopping their way through them without a second thought of their Orc children waiting for them at home. Nor are we meant to care for them for as Lynette Nusbacher says in the Story of J.R.R. Tolkien: Master of the Rings:

“Tolkien created them to represent all that is bad about modern war.”

Though I must say in regards to “modern war,” that war has never been nice, no matter what time period you find yourself in. It wasn’t all chivalry, gentlemanly conduct, and polite duels. No; war is, and has always been death and disaster. In my opinion his version of Orcs are really all war in general, not just the “modern” version. Anyway I am getting a little bit side-tracked.

The thing with Orcs was that when I was little I absolutely loved the things. Whilst others might like elves, dwarfs, and halflings, I found them boring in comparison. Indeed Elves on the whole seem to be just dull bunch of super blonde perfect whatsits, like a race full of Clarke Kents. Everyone prefers Batman at the end of the day. Orcs though come in varying sizes and shapes, and though they’re not necessarily completely evil (though they are in most cases) they all tend to like a good scrap. The first Orcs I was introduced to were the Warhammer ones. In fact here’s a picture of them:

These are from Battlemasters, a kid friendly miniature wargame that I got as a present when I was about 5 years old. It was wonderful, and those who know me already know how much I love my Warhammer. As you can see they are green. Yes the plastic itself is green, but they are meant to be painted with that skin complexion too. They are short, squat, quite broad shouldered, and ugly. I don’t know why I fell in love with them but I did. There was something about them, maybe I found their ugliness made them interesting? Or perhaps it was that wide mouth that seemed familiar. But maybe, like many other people I just liked the baddies. It’s a common phenomenon.

Now these Orcs are Warhammer Orcs. Their miniatures have got bigger over the years, becoming the size of a large rugby player with the temperament of the worst kind of football hooligan; a design choice Games Workshop has actually alluded to before. They are violent creatures and are generally a rough kind of baddie in the Warhammer World. Not the most evil but not the sort you’d want to hang around with. Along with this they can also be quite funny too. Their love for a fight is almost their only passion. Everything else, like making weapons, planning battles, or sorting out supplies, is ultimately to make their next scrap the best it can be. A retreat would not be seen as a panicked flight from their demise, no it would be so that they could round up more of their chums and have another proper go at smashing in the heads of this exciting and tough new enemy. That is if they could manage to stop fighting each other. In the sci-fi setting these elements have gone even further, with temperamental weapons that are cobbled together, fighter pilots who will deliberately dive bomb into the enemy cos it’s more fun, and the belief that if you paint your vehicle red it makes it faster (indeed in game they really do go a bit faster). They’re great fun, and as such I’ve collected an army or two of these green brutes, (5 year old me would never let them lose either).

The other similar variant of this type of Orc is the Warcraft version. I’ve never really got into it, however my wife loves it so I’ve learnt quite a bit from her. They like a good fight yes, a good number of them are evil yes, but unlike other versions they have a sense of honour too. Some of them are even goodies! Clan laws are respected, honourable (and of course tough) leaders are obeyed. In other worlds Orc underlings are always on the lookout for the next opportunity to either stab their boss in the back or smash their face in, dependent on their preference to be sneaky or tough. The Warcraft Orcs though have desires and goals that go beyond this power struggle and the desire inflict pain and having a good punch up. In many cases they work with the other races to deal with greater threats, or to protect their people. There’s no way anyone could strike a lasting deal with a Warhammer Orc or Lord of the Rings Orc, it’s hardly is going to last more than the next big fight. It’s a designer’s choice of course to pull them in this direction, though they still retain the qualities of what usually makes an Orc. In World of Warcraft they are still big green beasts, yes, but noble ones all the same.

Of course we can’t really study this race without having a look at archetypal Orc as created by Tolkien himself. It is this version of them that are essentially total evil, mixed with more evil, and with evil sprinkles added on top. To quote The Fall of Gondolin:

“Their hearts were of granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal, and to nothing were they more fain than to aid in the basest of the purpose of Melko.”

They sound lovely don’t they? And look at this picture here:

The sort of individual you want to take home to meet your parent’s right? They smell bed, look bad, their behaviour is bad, and they feel bad, like all the time! They enjoy torture, walks across barren hellscapes, and the fall of the realms of men (I will get to those misogynistically named kingdoms at a later date). I have seen a number of films and adverts where people form romantic attachments with zombies – Shawn of the Dead even sees Simon Pegg maintain his friendship with his now zombified best friend, but to me these are far more believable than managing the same but with an Orc. Well maybe not a Warcraft Orc, some people with a thing for Shrek might find their sort quite rugged and handsome.

These Lord of the Ring’s Orcs, the archetypal version, were only introduced to me after meeting the other fine specimens. I had read the Hobbit yes, but they didn’t appear in that, only goblins did. Though you could argue for days whether they’re one and the same, they have for a while now been established as two, equally evil races, no matter what Tolkien might have originally intended. When I did finally come across the film and its supporting material, this obsession started anew. I had to learn all the different types, where they lived, what they ate! A menu is mentioned in the Two Towers so surely there is some idea of Orc restaurants established in their culture. While others might have been trying to learn elvish or the finer parts of hobbit cuisine, I was looked up Orc names and equipment. I went into the first film more excited about seeing the Uruk-Hai then Hobbiton. Though remarkably tougher they were pretty much just as expendable. They did kill Sean Bean (not the hardest thing to accomplish) and did have the best battle scene – Helm’s Deep - in the series (which was a lot of hard work to film!), but ultimately they were Orcs – ugly, monstrous, and evil; a threat for the heroes to overcome. Of course as I grew older I learnt to appreciate the other aspects of this wonderful magical world both on the page and on the screen – elves though are still not that great though.

For those of you who have read my book you will know that Orcs appear there too. Appearance wise they are similar to the Warcraft and Warhammer versions, and yes a good number of them make up the rank and file of the villain’s army and they’re also pretty expendable. But as you read, try taking notice of those hovering in the background. Those who might be putting on a play, having a few drinks with some friends, and even those who have a knack for interior decorating or dentistry. It’s a purposeful cheeky nod to those Orcs that have come before them. It’s all a load of elven propaganda when it comes down to it. What would the Orcish history books say? What would their diaries say? I think you’d probably find out that as race they’re neither entirely good nor evil, I guess in much the same way as human kind itself. If you were to label our species as a whole what words would you use? So maybe, just maybe, we could just let the Orcs do something new on occasion and be the hero.

With that it’s bye for now. I’ll be back soon.


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