What was the origin of the Orcs?

A fundamental concept for Tolkien (and the other Inklings) was that Evil cannot create, only corrupt (the Boethian, as opposed to the Manichean, concept of evil). In Letter 153 he explained that to a first approximation, Treebeard was wrong ("Trolls are only counterfeits, made by the Enemy in the Great Darkness, in mockery of Ents, as Orcs were of Elves." TT, p. 89) and Frodo was right ("The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don't think it gave life to Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them ..." RK, p. 190). (Tolkien: "Treebeard is a character in my story, not me; and though he has a great memory and some earthy wisdom, he is not one of the Wise, and there is quite a lot he does not know or understand." Letters, p. 190; "Suffering and experience (and possibly the Ring itself) gave Frodo more insight ..." Letters, p. 191.) ("To the first approximation" [above] because in that same letter Tolkien made some subtle distinctions between "creating" and "making", which cannot be gone into here.)

Tolkien stated explicitly in that letter (and several other places) that the Orcs are indeed "a race of rational incarnate creatures, though horribly corrupted". Also that "In the legends of the Elder Days it is suggested that the Diabolus subjugated and corrupted some of the earliest Elves, before they had ever heard of the 'gods', let alone of God." (Letters, p. 191). In fact, the Silm does state that Orcs were Avari (Dark Elves) captured by Morgoth (p. 50, 94), though strictly speaking, the idea is presented as the best guess of the Eldar, no more. Some have rejected the statements on those grounds, that the Elvish compilers of the Silm didn't actually know the truth but were merely speculating. But since Tolkien himself, speaking as author and sub-creator, more-or-less verified this idea, it's probably safe to accept it, as far as it goes.

It has been widely noted that this conception leaves several questions unresolved.

  1. Re: procreation, the Silm says that "the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar" (p. 50), but nevertheless people continue to raise questions. For one thing, there was never any hint that female Orcs exist (there were two apparent references to Orc children, but both were from the Hobbit , and therefore may be considered suspect).
  2. There is the question of why, if Orcs were corrupted Elves, their offspring would also be Orcs (rather than Elves -- a somewhat horrifying thought). This question leads to discussions of brainwashing. genetics, which are not altogether appropriate to the world of Middle-earth.
  3. Finally there is the question of whether Orcs, being fundamentally Elves, go to the Halls of Mandos when they are slain, and whether, like Elves, they are reincarnated. (This last would explain how they managed to replenish their numbers so quickly all the time.) There is also some reason to think that Orcs, like Elves, are immortal. (Gorbag and Shagrat, during the conversation which Sam overheard, mention the "Great Siege", which presumably refers to the Last Alliance; it is possible to interpret this reference to mean that they were there and actually remembered it themselves.)

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Last modified: Sat Aug 19 20:13:52 1995