Peter Jackson's Orcs
Even among men of our own time we can see behavior worthy of Orcs: a prime motive of fear instead of love, and an esteem of creation elevated above devotion to the Creator. The net effect is division among men where God intended unity—the root of all racism and classism.  

Analysis by Greg Wright


Peter Jackson's Orcs  

This page was created on August 17, 2003
This page was last updated on May 31, 2005

Peter Jackson's Orcs

Tolkien, Racism and Classism

The peoples of Middle-earth are, admittedly, very European. The people of Gondor, and others of Numenorean descent, are fair-skinned and grey-eyed. The north-men of Rohan are, not suprisingly, Nordic in their fair-haired stature. And the Hobbits themselves, while a bit on the furry side, are very, well... British. The Southrons on the other hand—those of Near and Far Harad—are swarthy and even quite dark-skinned, while the followers of Ghân-buri-Ghân are presented as aboriginal and men of uncertain descent are at times described as sallow.

Does this make Tolkien racist? To be sure, the humans of Middle-earth tend to be what might be today called segregationist: purity of bloodlines is of tremendous concern to these people, and at the time of The War of the Ring, to be a Numenorean is a source of great pride—and to be anything else is to be, quite frankly, something lesser. But Rohan's separatism, for only one example, is based more on ignorance, fear and mistrust than it is on ideology. And it's hardly surprising that Tolkien, in writing a mythology he could dedicate "to England," would produce a fantastic world that rather mirrored his own. The Lord of the Rings takes place in a northerly clime, not an equatorial.

The stratification of Middle-earth's social classes has also been criticized. Kings are kings, and serfs are serfs—and the twain shall never meet. But again, to be English is to recognize and accept the significance of bloodlines and lineage: to know your place in the world, and to embrace it. At the same time, a worthy monarch of Middle-earth knows what it is to be truly noble, and that nobility cannot be reduced to station alone. Even the lowliest may be worthy of great honor through loyalty, faithfulness, courage and service—thus Aragorn and Éomer may confer status and position upon mere Hobbits, that peculiar and unique "branch of the specifically human race."

And Just What the Heck Are Orcs?

But the real key to understanding Tolkien's feelings about race is to address the issue of the Elves, and their counterparts—the Orcs. For here we see in Tolkien truly distinct races. The Dwarves are also racially different from the human family; but Elves and Orcs are actually related, the Orcs in dark ages past having been corruptly bred from the nobility of Elvish stock by dark powers. Peter Jackson's movies bring this legend into the foreground in Saruman's development of a new breed of Orc, the "fighting Uruk-hai," which he calls the culmination of the ages-long process of corruption.

And here, of course, it would be pretty easy to bring up the charges of racism again: the Elves themselves are racially stratified into "High" and "Low" classes, with the High Elves at times snobbishly preferential on the basis of dialect and hair color; and, of course, the Elves are all fair-skinned, while the corrupt Orcs are all dark-skinned.

But what are Orcs, exactly? Tolkien took great pains to explain the nature of Elves. Unlike humans, whose eternal spirit is housed in a fallen, corrupt body, Elves are simultaneously immortal—Galadriel, for only one example, has lived several thousands of years by the time of The War of the Ring—yet bound to a physical fate. Though Elvish spirits pass to the Halls of Mandos, this is but a temporary and finite residence. At the remaking of Arda (the End Times of Middle-earth) the Elves face an unknown future while the spirits of Men will dwell on with Eru forever.

As corrupted Elves, do Orcs share a similar fate? Are they long-lived liked their nobler, purer kin? Those issues are never really addressed by Tolkien. For what makes an Orc an Orc, as far as Tolkien is concerned, is not the color of what passes for skin or even the nature of what might be called the Orc's spirit—it's what an Orc does, and who an Orc serves.

The Orcs of Moria

Peter Jackson really does do a fine job of bringing the Orcs to the screen. Unlike Rankin/Bass (who, in an apparent homage to the classical origins of goblins, put wings on Tolkien's Orcs) and Ralph Bakshi (whose Orcs resemble denizens of a Cecil B. DeMille leper colony), Jackson does present a vision tolerably consistent with Tolkien's. Thanks to prosthetic and digital technology, Jackson's Orcs are anatomically dinstinct enough for us to see real connections between the screen and Tolkien's narrative—and there is yet room for the various classes which exist even within the race of Orcs.

The Orcs of Moria, for instance, are the scuttling, clambering breed which seems characteristic of the Misty Mountains, even the more southerly vales. They are fair archers, and fight in swarming hordes with the assistance of cave trolls. In Moria, they are dominated by the fearsome presence of the Balrog and flee at his coming—and to the extent that the Balrog is in league with Sauron, they also serve the Dark Lord. And while they are a loathsome menace, perhaps best visualized as they clamber down from the shadows upon the Fellowship in the halls of Dwarrowdelf, their abilities are limited. They are deathly afraid of sunlight, and will even cower and die under its influence. So it is that they do not pursue the Fellowship as it issues from Moria, and Aragorn must remind Boromir that by nightfall Kheled-zâram will be swarming with Orcs.

Grishnákh and the Orcs of the Field

It's a pity, really, that Jackson can't devote more screen time in The Two Towers to the party of Orcs which takes Merry and Pippin captive and lugs them across Rohan toward Isengard. The stripped-down version of the story doesn't allow many questions to be answered. Why are there two breeds of Orcs among the party: Grishnákh and his fellows, and the Uruk-hai? Why are they in the open country on the west side of Anduin in the first place? Why do they then trek through the unsafe enemy territory of Rohan, instead of heading for the relative safety of the east bank of Anduin toward Mordor?

The answers are really in service to Jackson's fundamental conception of Saruman as a pragmatically hopeless, duped vassal of Sauron rather than the duplicitous aspirant to power which Tolkien conceives. So there is little clue in Jackson's movies that Grishnákh and company are Orcs of Mordor temporarily and bregrudingly in league with Saruman's Uruk-hai, browbeaten into taking the westerly course. In Tolkien, a contingent of the Mordor Orcs even breaks off from the main party to beat a return to the east; but they are forced back by the Riders of Rohan.

Grishnákh and the others of the Mordor breed are more affected by the sunlight than are the Uruk-hai. While not as sun-intolerant as the Orcs of Moria, they are still dependent on their own vile brew for sustenance—and are wholly at the mercy of fear and the will of their master to drive them on.

The Uruk-hai

Saruman's Orcs have had all such infirmity bred out of them. They don't scuttle, like the Orcs of Moria, and they don't equivocate or quarrel amongst themselves, like the Orcs of Mordor. They are impervious to the effects of the sun, and they equal or excel in stature the Elves themselves and their human allies. They are lean, mean fighting machines, and they have but one purpose—to serve the will of Saruman.

Whether in Tolkien or in Jackson—but perhaps most clear in Jackson's movies—this gets us into the territory of defining what it is that really makes an Orc orc-ish: misplaced allegiance. In the first place, Orcs are mistakenly driven by fear. For Tolkien, a Christian, this is inimical to a sound understanding of one's purpose in the universe: a motivation toward praise and worship of the creator through love, which "casts out fear." Second, Orcs mistakenly revere the creation rather than the Creator. Whether it's Saruman, Sauron, the Balrog or their own Orc chieftans, all are the creation of Eru. And all Middle-earth ultimately falls under the sway of its Creator; neither demons nor wayward wizards can supplant the intended majesty of Eru.

The Effects of Idolatry

And really, this discussion of Orcs should scuttle charges of racism or classism in Tolkien. Why? Because as far as Tolkien was concerned, Orcs were merely a fictionalization of a contemporary reality. He transformed his war experiences, for instance—the visceral struggle between good and evil—into "another form and symbol with Morgoth and Orcs" pitted against the Elves. Further, in a war-time letter to his son Christopher, Tolkien called the Orcs "as real a creation as anything in 'realistic' fiction." For Tolkien, it was easy to see that adapting the means of the enemy to defeat the enemy—"attempting to conquer Sauron with the Ring," if you will—bears, of necessity, evil fruit: "The penalty is, as you will know, to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs." And their fate? Tolkien conceded the possibility that Orcs, like some human residents of our own world, might be "unredeemable"—yet insisted that, in Middle-earth, mercy should be shown to Orcs "even at cost," a moral vision distinctly lacking in Jackson's The Two Towers.

And so even among men of our own time we can see behavior worthy of Orcs: a prime motive of fear instead of love, and an esteem of creation elevated above devotion to the Creator. The net effect is division among men—the root of all racism and classism—where God intended unity. A house divided against itself cannot stand, as Jesus observed. One cannot serve two masters.

And so Tolkien's Orcs really bring home the issue to us, personally. If we examine our own behavior, what do we find? Love, and devotion to God? Or fear, and perhaps devotion to self? Are we men as we were intended to be, or have we ourselves become Orcs?

LOTR Coverage Index here

E-mail Greg Wright here

The Lord of the Rings © 1999-2004 New Line Cinema. All Rights Reserved.