I was just scanning The Hobbit, looking for the scene where Bilbo finds the ring, and I ran into this underground encounter between Dwarves and Orcs (emphasis added):
At this point, Gandalf fell behind, and Thorin with him. They turned a sharp corner. “About turn!” he shouted. “Draw your sword, Thorin.”
There was nothing else to be done; and the goblins did not like it. They came scurrying around the corner in full cry, found Goblin-cleaver and Foe-hammer shining cold and bright right in their astonished eyes. The ones in front dropped their torches and gave one yell before they were killed. The ones behind yelled still more, and leaped back knocking over those that were running after them. “Biter and Beater!” they shrieked; and soon they were all in confusion, and most of them were hustling back they way they had come.
It was quite a long while before any of them dared to turn that corner. By that time the dwarves had gone on again, a long, long way into the dark tunnels of the goblins’ realm. When the goblins discovered that, they put out their torches and they slipped on soft shoes, and they chose out their quickest runners with the sharpest ears and eyes. These ran forward, as swift as weasles in the dark, and with hardly no more noise than bats.
Which is why neither Bilbo, nor the dwarves, nor even Gandalf heard them coming. Nor did they see them. (Hobbit, 1973, pp. 74-75)
It is clear from this one passage that the Orcs are fully-sentient creatures with a culture of their own.
“Goblin-cleaver/Foe-hammer” and “Biter/Beater” refer to the swords wielded by Thorin and Gandalf; the Elvish names of those blades are “Orcrist” and “Glamdring,” respectively. “Foe-hammer” and “Goblin-cleaver” are simple transliterations of the Elvish names into modern English; “Beater” and “Biter” are names the Orcs have given these weapons. The fact that they recognize these swords which have been lost for centuries and only lately unearthed from a Troll-hoard, and that they have their own names for them, tells me Orcs have a historical tradition.
The Dwarves are in the goblins’ realm. It’s on the page, in black-and-white. A realm is a political system.
Not only are the goblins smart enough to understand tactics, they have soft shoes that they use just for sneaking. That says industry and specialization. Somewhere in the bowels of Middle Earth, these Orcs have an economy. I think that’s apparent from close reading of the passage I quoted, but just in case there’s any doubt, I also have an encyclopedia of Middle Earth.
This is perhaps cheating a little, but, I find this description from Robert Foster’s very handy and thoroughly-sourced Complete Guide to Middle Earth helpful:
Orcs were bred in mockery of Elves, and, like Elves they were fierce warriors and did not die naturally . . . They were skilled in tunneling, in making weapons, and in other practical skills; their medicines were harsh but extremely effective . . . Orcs liked blood and raw flesh and ate, among other things, Men, ponies, and their own kind. (p. 394)
Which leads me to one of the most problematic aspects of LOTR. What happens to the Orcs once Sauron is gone? They are not automatically destroyed when the ring is unmade, because their development predates Sauron’s rise to power. They are vicious, alien creatures. In the best of times, they are freebooters who plague civilization in ways that demand a violent response. Even so, there are a lot of passages in this story where they act more like people than monsters.
This next piece of the puzzle might make things more clear, or it might just be confusing. This is the first reference to Orcs, from The Silmarillion; the notes in brackets are mine, added for the sake of clarity:
But of those unhappy ones who were ensared by Melkor [The original dark lord and the Satan of this theology] little is known of a certainty. For who of the living has descended into the pit of Utumno [the original Black Tower, and a sort of hell], or has explored the darkness of the counsels of Melkor? Yet this is held true by the wise of Eressea, that all those of the Quendi [High Elves] who came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes. For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Iluvatar [meaning, Elves and mortals], and naught that had life of its own, or semblance of life, could ever Melkor make since his rebellion . . . This it may be was the vilest deed of Melkor, and the most hateful to Iluvatar [the creator-god of this theology]. (p. 50).
So, first, Orcs are a sourcerous mutation of Elves, created to be their nemesis. Second, this account of their origin is not certain. It is something “the wise” hold to be true. Third, if this is how Orcs came into being, then their development was the worst sin ever committed by the most evil being in the history of the universe. Which is a lot of cultural baggage to be born with, for the average Orc of the Third Age.
The final reference I can find to the Orcs, chronologically, is “The Field of Cormallen,” the account of the last encounter between the “hosts of Mordor” and the “Captains of the West” (Return of the King, p. 226-235). Even here, their presence is implied. You just know they are a part of the army of Mordor; you don’t actually see them on the page. After this, they drop out of the story entirely, while most of the other peripheral groups (Beornings, Easterlings, Woses, dwarves of the Iron Hills, etc.) are at least present in the appendices which provide timelines and final endings for the major characters.
Just to be clear, when I say “problematic,” I am not saying the characters in this story are doing anything wrong. The characters in LOTR, all of them, are driven by thousands of years of history and tradition. They are engaged in a struggle for physical and spiritual survival. There are winners and losers and moral compromises in this story. There are epic heroes and tragic ones. Losses are real and final. Victories are expensive, but most of the characters are true to their own consciences in the final analysis. The reason I use the word “problematic” is that, when I look at these Orcs in this text from certain angles, I get echoes of early European explorers talking about the peoples they’re colonizing. And I don’t find it very much of a stretch to read them that way. I am not saying this is good or bad; it is just something I find interesting enough to obsess about. That colonialism would crop up here, of all places.
This is really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The status of the Dwarves in Tolkien’s fictional theology is also interesting; perhaps even more so. I am sure I will explore that topic at some point, as well.
This Rankin-Bass cartoon is probably what set me thinking about the question of the Orcs originally. I saw it maybe 20 times between between the ages of 7 and 10. It adds a lot of subtext that just isn’t present in the books, but check out what happens to the Orcs in this clip when Samwise re-makes the world in his own image. Really. Watch it.
(Note – I will return to the line of LOTR criticism I started here last week. Once I actually started tracing references to the Ring and trying to figure out how to talk about them, I realized it is going to require a lot more reading than I anticipated. So, I am working on that, but in the meantime, I really can’t pass up things like the Orc problem. Here is a bibliography of the Tolkien texts I am using.)