Created | Updated Jun 20, 2016
Orcs are fictional evil creatures, originally from the works of JRR Tolkien. After Tolkien's works became popular, orcs appeared in works of fiction by other authors and eventually in role-playing and computer games. In Tolkien's works, they are the foot soldiers in the armies of both Dark Lords, Morgoth in The Silmarillion and Sauron in The Lord of the Rings as well as appearing on their own behalf in The Hobbit.
An orc is an intelligent, humanoid creature, smaller than a man, with bowed legs and long arms. They generally shun sunlight and prefer darkness. Orcs are ugly and frequently have prominent fangs. What makes them particularly disgusting, though, is not their looks but their evil attitudes. They hate everything and love to sneer. They threaten violence in a way calculated to disgust.
Orcs were bred by Morgoth, the original Dark Lord, as fighters, but don't appear to be particularly good at it. It seems to be possible to kill an orc just by waving a sword in his general direction. Even the peace-loving hobbits manage to kill orcs on their very first encounter with them in Moria. Nevertheless, an army of orcs can dominate by sheer numbers; they generally outnumber their opponents by ten to one.
The Origin of the Orcs
Tolkien never fully decided exactly where the orcs came from. The first orcs were used by Morgoth in his wars before the first rising of the Sun, when Men had not yet appeared and only the Elves were around to fight. In a very early version of the story of the Fall of Gondolin, Tolkien says of the orcs, 'all that race were bred by Melko1 of the subterranean heats and slime'. Tolkien was not happy with the idea that Morgoth could create thinking beings endowed with free will, as that was the prerogative of the one true god, Ilúvatar. So in some early versions of the stories, the orcs were automatons, imbued with the will of their master but unable to think for themselves. We see a remnant of this at the end of The Lord of the Rings when Sauron dies: his armies are suddenly without a sense of purpose and wander around aimlessly. But the automaton idea didn't really work well, so Tolkien also entertained the possibility that the orcs were Elves or Men who had been corrupted by Morgoth - this explained their extreme hatred for Elves and Men - as they could see what they themselves had once been.
Tolkien preferred the idea of orcs being corrupted Men - having fought in the First World War, he had encountered many examples of men being easily corrupted to evil. His Elves were nobler creatures. Unfortunately, this didn't fit in with his timeline of world events, as the first wars between Elves and orcs in his stories happened before Men arrived in the world. So the orcs had to be corrupted Elves, and this version of the story was in fact published after his death in The Silmarillion. In this version, Morgoth became aware of the Elves soon after they awoke in the world and sent his evil creatures to kidnap any of them who strayed in the darkness. These captives were corrupted and eventually became the orcs.
After the world was freed from Morgoth's tyranny, his lieutenant Sauron took over the role of Dark Lord, and also amassed huge armies of orcs to help him conquer the world. These ranged from the tiny Snaga to the huge Uruk-hai, a name which technically means 'orc people' but was used to refer in later years to only the biggest and strongest of the orcs.
If orcs are corrupted Elves or humans, then it suggests that there are male and female orcs and that they breed by the normal methods. Certainly we're told that the orc Bolg who fought in the Battle of Five Armies was the son of Azog who had killed Thorin's grandfather Thrór. If an orc can be a father, then surely there must also be a mother? But there are no references in Tolkien's work to female orcs, so this issue is far from clear.
The wizard Saruman also made an orc-army, and his orcs had the added ability that they were comfortable in sunlight, allowing them to work by day as well as by night. It was thought by many that he had bred humans (which Tolkien called 'Men') and orcs together to produce his sun-tolerant creatures - although this was never confirmed. There were also Men in the employ of Saruman who looked distinctly orc-like - one was seen talking to Bill Ferny in Bree. These may have also been the result of such breeding experiments. Again this suggests reproduction by normal means.
In Peter Jackson's film of The Fellowship of the Ring, we see an alternative theory of how orcs are formed. Saruman attends the birth of an orc. It seems to be born fully developed from a sort of placenta in a pool of mud. There's no sign of any female orc. This scene seems to have been inspired by the early mention of orcs being formed from the subterranean heats and slime.
Orcs, Uruks and Goblins
The Hobbit was intended as a children's story, so Tolkien tried to use simple language. He used the familiar English word 'goblin' rather than 'orc' to refer to these creatures, although they were called orcs in a few places. He said in the foreword to the book that 'orc' is not an English word and that he had 'translated' it into goblin or hobgoblin. Tolkien liked to present himself as the translator of books written by Bilbo and Frodo rather than as the author of them. He also said that his 'orc' is nothing to do with the English word 'ork or 'orc' which means a type of sea-animal of dolphin-kind. He was referring to the killer whale which is now usually called an 'orca'.
In The Lord of the Rings the word 'orc' is much more common although they are sometimes still called goblins, particularly by Merry and Pippin.
Tolkien didn't invent the word 'orc' meaning a monster - it was an old word deriving from or related to the Latin 'Orcus' meaning 'Hell'. The word was used occasionally, on its own or as a prefix, to indicate some sort of an evil spirit. Tolkien was the first to tie the word strictly to the evil, humanoid creatures of his stories.
In Tolkien's fictional etymology, 'orch' (with a Scottish ch sound) was the Elvish name for the creatures, plural 'yrch', but a similar word was used in most other languages. In the Black Speech of Mordor, the word was 'uruk', which originally meant any orc, but later came to mean only the larger ones. The smaller ones were generally referred to as 'snaga', literally 'slave'.
The Life of an Orc
Orcs were originally bred as foot soldiers so they lived the lives of soldiers in vast armies. We don't see much of their day-to-day lives in the books, as the books were written from the perspective of their opponents. But we see that they drilled, organised patrols, kept watch and did all the other things that an army does while not actually fighting. All this was done with incredibly bad grace, of course. Conversations between orcs inevitably involve swearing and insulting each other, frequently ending in fights to the death.
Orcs ate meat. We're told they ate 'horses, ponies and donkeys (and other much more dreadful things)'. When Merry and Pippin were being held captive by the orcs, they were given lumps of unidentified meat and a fiery drink. This seems to have been the orcs' normal food. One orc in Saruman's army boasted that Saruman fed them on man-flesh, clearly a delicacy. Another orc suggested that it was more likely they were eating orc-flesh, something which even orcs found repulsive. Whether the orcs also ate vegetables in any form is not clear. Sauron had lots of farmland in the east of Mordor around the Sea of Nurnen where food for his armies was produced, but we're not told what sort of food this was.
Orcs were good at building things. They didn't make anything beautiful, but they built lots of clever machinery, particularly machines for use in warfare or torture. They also made lots of hammers, spades and pickaxes which they used for mining. Orcs generally lived underground and, like Dwarves, liked to build their cities under large mountains.
After the wars of the Second Age, in which Sauron's orc armies were defeated by the High Elves and the Men of Númenor, any orcs that survived retreated into the mountains. Without a Dark Lord in charge to order them, they had no real reason to attack anybody so they seem to have lived fairly peaceful lives, keeping themselves to themselves. It is interesting to speculate that perhaps orcs are not intrinsically evil as they are presented, but just easily swayed into fighting on the side of evil. Tolkien had personal experience of the First World War, and it is clear that most of the soldiers fighting in that war were in a similar situation. But nobody in the books ever captured an orc and tried to rehabilitate it and get it to fight on the side of good, so we'll never know what the result would have been.
How long do orcs live? We don't know. If they are corrupted Elves, they could theoretically be immortal, in that they would continue to live until they were killed in battle. The only definite evidence we have of the age of an orc is that Bolg was the son of Azog. Azog died in 2799 so Bolg must have been alive then. Bolg himself was killed in 2941, so he must have been at least 142 years old. This makes him considerably longer-lived than any modern man, but some of the Men in Tolkien's world lived a long time - the Numenorian kings lived for centuries. There's not really enough to go on here to decide how long orcs lived or whether they were immortal.
How to Know if There are Orcs About
Orcs tend to gang together in bands. They generally leave a trail of destruction wherever they go, chopping down trees for firewood or just for the fun of it. They often wear steel-clad boots, so they trample the ground as they go. Aragorn and his companions had no problem tracking the orc-band across the grasslands of Rohan as their trail was plain for all to see. Although orcs are capable of travelling silently at high speed when they need to, they prefer to make a lot of noise. If there are orcs approaching you'll probably hear raucous singing, shouting and cursing.
The High Elves of the First Age had an additional way of detecting orcs. They made swords and knives which glowed with a blue light if orcs were nearby. They used these in their wars against Morgoth's orcs. Two of these swords and a knife survived until the Third Age and were found by Bilbo and the Dwarves in a troll's hoard. The swords were Glamdring ('Foe hammer') and Orcrist ('Goblin cleaver') which became the swords of Gandalf and Thorin. The knife was just the right size for Bilbo to use as a sword - he called it 'Sting' because of its effectiveness against giant spiders. He passed it on to Frodo who used it against the orcs in Moria. Eventually it came into the hands of Sam, who used it to seriously wound the biggest spider of all, Shelob (or as the orcs put it, 'stuck a pin in her ladyship').
The early tales of Morgoth's war against the Elves mentioned particular orcs by name such as Balcmeg and Boldog, but these names were all removed when the stories were published in The Silmarillion. It is in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that we hear the names of orcs.
Named Orcs in The Hobbit
Golfimbul is a joke name based on 'golf' and 'fimbul', a Norse word meaning 'mighty'. This orc is said to have led an invasion of the Shire. He was defeated at the Battle of the Green Fields by Bandobras 'Bullroarer' Took, one of the biggest hobbits ever, who struck off his head with a club. The head went down a rabbit hole. Bullroarer won the battle and at the same time invented the game of golf.
Thorin Oakenshield's grandfather Thrór was killed by the orc Azog. This is mentioned briefly in The Hobbit but more detail is provided in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. Khazad-dûm was the greatest of the Dwarves' underground cities and was built and ruled by Thorin and Thrór's distant ancestors. The Dwarves uncovered a monster when digging under the city and had to abandon it. It became an evil place infested with orcs and was given the name Moria, the Black Pit. Many centuries later, Thrór went to Moria in the hope of getting it back from the orcs. He was killed by Azog, who claimed to be the ruler of Moria. Azog cut the head off Thrór's corpse, branded his name on the forehead and threw the head out through the east gate of Moria, knowing that the Dwarves were outside watching. Thrór's nephew Dain later attacked Moria and killed Azog in revenge, although he did not re-take the Dwarf city.
Bolg was the son of Azog. He appears to have been leader of a large number of mountain orcs. He led the orc attack on the Lonely Mountain, Erebor, which resulted in the Battle of Five Armies. He was killed in the battle by Beorn, the bear-man.
The Great Goblin - this is a title rather than a name. He was a large orc with a very large head who ruled Goblin-town, the orc city under the pass in the Misty Mountains east of Rivendell. He was killed by Gandalf using the sword Glamdring.
Named Orcs in The Lord of the Rings
Uglúk was one of Saruman's orcs from Isengard. He led the attack on the Fellowship at Rauros which resulted in the death of Boromir and the capture of Merry and Pippin. The attack was a combined effort by orcs from Mordor and Isengard, but Ugluk managed to lead the group into bringing the hobbits towards Isengard. They were waylaid on the way by the men of Rohan and all the orcs were killed.
Grishnákh was the leader of the Mordor orcs in the same attack. When the group was surrounded by the riders of Rohan, he carried Merry and Pippin through the cordon, intending to bring them back to Mordor, but was killed by a rider, leaving Merry and Pippin free to escape.
Shagrat - the orc in charge of the Citadel of Cirith Ungol.
Gorbag - an orc from Minas Morgul who was sent up the stairs of Cirith Ungol to the citadel to see if everything was OK, as the Nazgûl were uneasy.
Shagrat's orcs and Gorbag's orcs ended up fighting over the mithril armour they found on Frodo, and they effectively wiped each other out, leaving Sam free to rescue Frodo.
Lúrtz - is an invention of Peter Jackson, introduced in his films to allow more characterisation of the orcs. We are shown Saruman supervising the birth of Lúrtz who is the biggest, strongest and most violent orc yet produced. Instead of Boromir being killed by anonymous orc arrows, he fights with Lúrtz and is killed. Aragorn then gets revenge by killing Lúrtz.
In the book, Gothmog is mentioned briefly as a commander of the forces of Mordor at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields outside Minas Tirith, but it is never stated what race he was. Some have taken him to be a Nazgûl or Ringwraith. In Peter Jackson's film The Return of the King, Gothmog is a hideously deformed orc, with large growths on his head.
Orcs outside of Tolkien's Work
Orcs are the perfect fictional enemy, one that you don't have to feel guilty about killing. This is such a useful idea that they appear in many other fantasy works, although they aren't always called orcs - in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, for example, they are called Trollocs but are clearly the same creatures.
Stan Nicholls wrote a series of books about orcs with titles like Orcs: Bodyguard of Lightning, Legion of Thunder, Warriors of the Tempest and Orcs: Forged for War.
There's an orc in one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, although it would be a major spoiler to even reveal the name of the book.
Orcs also appear in many role-playing fantasy games such as Dungeons and Dragons.