They’re one of the longest-serving bad guys in popular culture, but what’s the secret of the orcs’ success – and do they always have to be evil?
Opinions are like gum on the bottom of your shoe; they stick around. The bog-standard orc can swear by this. It’s true that they made some iffy calls back in the day (which was all the dark lord’s idea, they swear), but now they’re tarred with an oafish and inexplicably-cockney brush. As such, we’re happy to slap them about without a moment’s thought. Faceless monsters who exist to be beaten down, these are the ultimate bad guys.
Except that’s not really true. If anything – and as demonstrated by Word Of Warcraft’s return to its roots – orcs are the class bully that grew up. These days they’re complex and honourable souls with families, compassion, and only the occasional desire for human flesh.
Want proof? Here’s a humble history of the orc.
Basically, It’s All Tolkien’s Fault
Although fantasy staples like dwarves, elves, and trolls can be traced back to European folklore, your average orc is harder to pin down. In fact, there’s little to no equivalent before a certain J. R. R. Tolkien showed up. While these brutes are similar to mythological goblins that have appeared since the early Middle-Ages, ‘traditional’ orcs owe their characteristics to the Oxford professor. The Hobbit offers us a spiteful race of mountain-dwellers overcome by greed, and The Lord of the Rings develops them further into the vicious yet cowardly rabble that’s stuck around ever since.
Not that he was solely responsible, of course. As Tolkien admits in published letters, his orcs were inspired by classic children’s novel The Princess and the Goblin. Released in 1872, it predates The Lord of the Rings by almost a century and introduces orcs’ affinity for nicking underground mines (it also suggests a weakness in their large, soft feet, a notion Tolkien borrows for his own saga). This became a cornerstone of the ‘orc’ as we know them today, leaving us with thuggish louts who squat beneath hills.
It’s an understatement to say that his depiction caught on. Almost every fantasy that included them afterward hewed close to Tolkien’s version. Whether it was choose-your-own adventure books such as Fighting Fantasy or classic role-player Dungeons & Dragons, they became typecast as fierce barbarians who exist to cause anarchy and/or be slaughtered by the player en masse. This is understandable; they’re a faceless horde we can rally against without any moral blowback. Who’d feel bad about killing something this despicably evil, especially when they wear the flayed skulls of their enemies like jewellery? Better still, they often have wicked loot stuffed up their chainmail for us to steal.
Each iteration added to that template until we were left with the green-skinned lunks you see in Total War: Warhammer and its tabletop inspiration. Indeed, their trailing arms, tusks, and ape-like heads are now the de-facto look of this species.
Then Warcraft turned up.
Misunderstood and Marginalised
It’s easier to believe that things are black and white in our uncertain world; this side-steps the troublesome fact that nobody’s entirely good or bad. Whilst the orcs of Tolkien’s mythos slot neatly into such a clean-cut notion of good versus evil, World Of Warcraft opts for a more layered take.
The long-running MMO, and its real-time strategy predecessor, portray orcs as noble (albeit warlike) souls just trying to escape their dark past. It’s a deft spin on the formula. Rather than ignoring their savage reputation, the franchise explains it away as an image problem; they’re the subject of lingering bigotry, generalisation, and the acts of a radicalised few. Furthermore, any violent antics of yesteryear are the result of deception. Ancient orcs were tricked into their war on Azeroth’s races by moustache-twirling demons, and in many ways they were just fighting to survive.
Although they revel in their warrior culture, this is a race with far more nuance than the typically ‘civilised’ races want us to believe; they’ve done bad things, yes, but they’re not necessarily evil. This reflects the knotted morals of our own, distinctly less fantastical, world. It also leads to a crisis of conscience. If the orcs are a foe with the same hopes and desires as us, how righteous can we be if we snuff them out by the truckload?
The Elder Scrolls takes a similar approach. Despite a love of loincloths, battle, and shamanism, the orcs of Thedas are refugees who are forced to combat xenophobia on a daily basis. In fact, they’re often left without a homeland of their own; their neighbours usually chase them out for fear of what they’ll do. This means that they pop up in little enclaves across the kingdom, which goes down about as well as you’d expect.
Regardless of whether you prefer these ‘orcs with a heart’ or more the more traditional goons, the former certainly makes for an intriguing story. As proven by Game of Thrones or The Witcher, there’s a tremendous amount that can be done with a conflict where the lines between right and wrong are blurred.
Coming Full Circle
That said, there’s been something of a revival for the traditional orc recently. Middle-Earth: Shadow Of War leads the charge with its foul-mannered warchiefs, an army pulled directly from Tolkien’s novels to cause us grief. Similarly, the Dragon Age series has played the same hand since 2009. While its ‘Darkspawn’ may not be orcs in the classic sense, they’re close enough to make little difference – they’re still faceless, savage monsters who squat in dwarven mines and set their sights on the destruction of all life.
This may reflect the uncertainty of our own lives right now. The state of the globe is somewhat fraught to say the least, so it’s comforting to triumph over a foe that is utterly and unequivocally evil.
What comes next, though? And which version do you prefer? Creations like this are always evolving as new voices make themselves heard, and all it takes is one popular twist to change the ball-game. It makes you wonder what Tolkien would think of his creation’s journey over the last 50 years; for better or worse, they’re far from the monsters they once were.
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