Origins of orcs

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Endril 26/Dec/2006 at 05:40 AM
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As we know each race in Tolkien’s work has a certain origin in one of the myths in our world. The elves are fantastic beings from different mithologyes but what about the orcs? Do they have a corespondent in one of our world’s myths or they were first invented by Tolkien?
Maiarian Man 26/Dec/2006 at 11:16 AM
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The name "orc" derives from the Old English word meaning "demon." There was certainly a literature of goblins prior to Tolkien, and Tolkien owes some of his ideas, especially in the Hobbit, to this literature. Indeed, Tolkien writes: "[the orcs] are not based on direct experience of mind; but owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition (goblin is used as a translation in The Hobbit, where orc only occurs once, I think), especially as it appears in George MacDonald, except for the soft feet which I never believed in" (Letter 144). I think this sums it up pretty well. Tolkien really derived them for his story, but was certainly influenced at the start by previous traditions regarding goblins. However, the internal history and nature of the Orcs, such as their origins and roles in the various stories, seems a bit beyond what anyone had ever written before. Tolkien’s Orcs, thus, are by no means the same type of creature as previous goblins in literature (which is perhaps why the OED includes a definition of Orc which refers to the creatures in Tolkien’s literature).
Curubethion 26/Dec/2006 at 01:56 PM
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My friend told me that Orcs were borrowed from Celtic mythology, but I don’t know about that. Goblins most likely were indeed the inspiration for the orcs, although he went and definitely took it above and beyond what had been written before. And then of course D & D and other people borrowed orcs from Tolkien...

Morgil 27/Dec/2006 at 01:45 AM
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Nope, I do believe Mairian Man is correct concerning the origins of the word "orc". His analysis does seem to be a sound summary.  I’ve never seen a reference placing it as Celtic in origin. Several works I’ve read place its origin as Old English.

Curubethion...Please don’t being D&D into it!  We could generate a huge thread on how Tolkien influenced that particular RPG.

Endril 27/Dec/2006 at 09:00 AM
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Never played that RP, I have to. Sticking to Gothic 1,2,3 untill now.

So from what I see here the orcs were created by Tolkien from the goblins yet I wonder from where the goblins came, there mythological origin. Were they part of the Celtic myths?
Galadriel0204 27/Dec/2006 at 11:37 AM
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Maybe orcs are a representation of the worst parts of human nature. A lot of mythical beings are representationts of different aspects of humans. I don’t think that orcs came from celtic mythology though. I have read alot of celtic mythology and never heard anything like an orc mentioned. The closest thing to an orc might be a fomorian and there are really no similarities between the two.
Boromir88 27/Dec/2006 at 12:02 PM
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Maybe orcs are a representation of the worst parts of human nature.~Galadriel

I’m not sure about that.  I’m just throwing this stuff out here, and tossing around some of these ideas.  But I think Tolkien even shows his spiteful, evil creatures of Orcs are individuals that can’t be part of ’the machine.’  Orcs were bred into thraldom and slavedom, and as Tolkien talks about were held into thraldom of this ’ant-like’ state:
"It is true, of course, that Morgoth held the Orcs in dire thraldom, for in their corruption they had almost lost all possibility of resisting the domination of his will. So great indeed did the pressure on them become ere Angband fell that, if he turned his thought towards them, they were conscious of his ’eye’ wherever they might be....this servitude to a central will that reduced the Orcs to an almost ant-like life was seen even more plainly in the Second and Third Age under the tyranny of Sauron, Morgoth’s chief Lieutenant."~Home X: Morgoth’s Ring, Myths Transformed
Even if Orcs are born and held into to be slaves to their ’masters’ Tolkien believes even they weren’t beyond redemption:
They would be Morgoth’s greatest Sins, abuses of his highest privilege, and would be creatures begotten of Sin, and naturally bad (I nearly wrote ’irredeemably bad’; but that would be going too far. Because by accepting or tolerating their making - necessary to their actual existence - even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God’s and ultimatly good.)~Letter #153

To Tolkien even his ’naturally evil’ Orcs were not beyond redemption.  I love the discussion between Shagrat and Gorbag about ’retiring’ after this war is over.  It gets you to see that even slave-held Orcs can not be part of ’the machine.’ 

I’ve been discussing a lot about George Orwell lately, and I’m reminded again of him.  In 1984, his character Winston rebels against the dominating/all-knowing government of Big Brother.  Winston is an individual and as Orwell shows individuals with their own free wills just can not function with ’the machine.’

I think that’s the same here with Tolkien’s Orcs.  Orcs are naturally evil by birth and born into it...therefor they become spiteful and hateful creatures.  However, what we see in the discussion between Gorbag and Shagrat (below); is that even these slave-held creatures have their own free will...and indiduals that have free will can not be part of ’the machine.’
’They would,’ grunted Gorbag. ’We’ll see.  But anyway, if it does go well, there should be a lot more room.  What d’you say? - if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.’
 ’Ah!’ said Shagrat.  ’Like old times.’~The Choices of Master Samwise

Galadriel0204 27/Dec/2006 at 01:02 PM
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So what does orcs having free will have to do with their being invented by Tolkien?
Boromir88 27/Dec/2006 at 08:00 PM
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I was disagreeing with the statement that Orcs may have represented the worst parts of human nature.  I think Orcs are shown to actually have the very human nature of individualism and rebelling against the machine.  It would surely be interesting that had Sauron gained complete domination of Middle-earth how he would have been able to keep all his Orcs and slaves in line.
Galadriel0204 28/Dec/2006 at 06:54 AM
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That’s a very interesting point. I never really thought of orcs as having free will. Wouldn’t Sauron be able to have kept the orcs in line by pitting them against one another and setting up a class system? That way those that got special privelages and had a special rank would be more likely to side with Sauron and keep the orcs in line.
Endril 28/Dec/2006 at 07:09 AM
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Don’t want to be the one that cuts discussion but I was really interesting in finding out the origins of orcs. Whatever.

Now about the second discussion, I don’t think that orcs would suit in that kind of social groups. Being only slaves it wasn’t necesarely that they would be organized like that. I don’t think Sauron would be overwhelmed by revolting orcs. That couldn’t happen because he maintained fear in there ranks and also he was to powerful to be outnumbered. He would resist himself against all of the armies that he created, because he could destroy them whenever he wanted.
Galadriel0204 28/Dec/2006 at 08:02 AM
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Sorry I didn’t mean to offend! I have no idea where goblins originally came from. Here’s a link to wikipedia hope that helps.
Boromir88 28/Dec/2006 at 08:50 AM
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I don’t mean to be intruding; but I felt like we still were on the topic...

If we are discussing where Tolkien got his ’Orcs’ from and how do they compare to other literature with Orcs, I felt it is important to note that Tolkien makes his Orcs very human-like.  Eventhough they were slaves and naturally evil they have common human desires in them.  Though they could be very ant-like, I think as evidenced by Gorbag and Shagrat they do feel a sense of individualism...they don’t need ’big bosses.’  Which as far as I know is not similar to other stories with Orcs in them.  And goes back to what Maiarian Man said that Tolkien took the goblins of past literature and molded his Orcs to fit in with his story creating and writing about Orcs in a way that no other author had done at the time.

Endril 30/Dec/2006 at 09:41 AM
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Boromir:Well some good examples about other literature that includes orcs would be very welcome. I don’t know much about other works containing this race, except some Warcraft fantasy made after the game and those orcs are very human. So, any works with orcs?
Poppy Burrows 30/Dec/2006 at 12:57 PM
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So sorry if this is of the point but, wernt the orcs made from torturing and twisting elves?
Vugar 30/Dec/2006 at 01:12 PM
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That was indeed one origin that Tolkien had written about, but there had been others before it and after. Some of Tolkien’s later writings, found in the tenth book of the History of Middle-earth series (HoMe) Morgoth’s Ring, deal with a Mannish origin for Orcs. There was a great difference between many of them. For instance, one of the earliest written origins of Orcs describes that they were made of the "slimes and heats of the earth" as I roughly recall and that their hearts were made of stone. The Elvish origin is one of the most popular due to the conclusion many draw from reading the Silmarillion, although it is not outrightly stated but held by the wise among Elves that it was so.
Poppy Burrows 30/Dec/2006 at 04:01 PM
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Oh i see! thank you Achaius for your very intresting repley. My strongist point is not really orcs if you understand, i’m more in to hobbit lore so to speak... hope to see you around, Poppy xxx