Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Monstrous Discussions: What is an Orc?

What is an Orc?

I am in the middle of my Paladin series blog, and I am getting ready to wrap up that series very shortly. However, before I can complete that series, I must take a side step over to this topic. Some of my readers may see where I am going with this. So with out further delay, let’s get into it.

What is an Orc? I think the answer is a bit subjective, and I can see how it can vary from DM to DM. However, I want to give some historical perspective, and then give my own personal take on them. I think there are some common themes that run throughout, and I want to discuss that at some length.

From the first ed MM:
“Orcs are cruel and hate living things in general, but they particularly hate elves and will always attack them in preference to other creatures. They take slaves for work, food, and entertainment (torture, etc) but not elves whom they kill immediately.”

From the 2nd ed MM:
“Orcs are a species of aggressive mammalian carnivores that band together in tribes and survive by hunting and raiding. Orcs believe that in order to survive they must expand their territory, and so they are constantly involved in wars against many enemies: humans, elves, dwarves, goblins, and other orc tribes.”

From the 3rd ed MM:
“Orcs are aggressive humanoids that raid, pillage, and battle other creatures. They have a hatred of elves and dwarves that began generations ago, and often kill such creatures on sight…..Orcs believe that to survive, they must conquer as much territory as possible, which puts them at odds with all intelligent creatures that live near them.”

From Paizo’s Classic Monsters Revisited:
“Mad marauders in the dark of night, these terrors descend on the unsuspecting and leave naught but slaughter in their wake…..Orcs are aggressive, brutish humanoids that exist by strength of their arms and sinews. They are the cockroaches of the humanoid races….The orc is the antithesis of civilized man…Never be mistaken: They’re not men, they’re monsters.”

From the New Tokien Companion:
“….believed to be themselves descended from the Quendi, for their sires, it was said, had been abducted by Melkor and twisted and corrupted into this new race: evil, filled with his dark will, cannibalistic and cruel.”

From Wikipedia:
“Orc is a word used to refer to various races of tough and warlike humanoid creatures in various fantasy settings, appearing originally in the stories of Middle-earth written by J. R. R. Tolkien and derivative fictions. Orcs are often portrayed as misshapen humanoids with brutal, warmongering, sadistic, yet cowardly tendencies, although some settings and writers describe them as a proud warrior race with a strong sense of honor.”

From Warcraft (source – Wikipedia):
“In the Warcraft computer game series Orcs are depicted as more ethically and socially complex than in most renditions. The great Orcish race is a savage but noble society made of shamanistic and fierce warriors.”

I included a number of sources to get a full range of opinions on what is an orc. I believe that the term (not necessarily the idea) first came from Tolkien, who took ideas from Old English and a variety of other old European languages and came up with the term. For the purposes of this discussion, I will consider the good professor as the official origin of the term. I believe that Gary Gygax took the term right from Tolkien and imported it directly in the D&D. While I have heard Gary's comments that Tolkien’s works had nothing to do with the creation of the game, I will take that with a grain of salt.

In looking over the list, the definitions vary from monster to noble yet savage humanoids. Clearly in the creation of the term orc, Tolkien had in mind a monster that was a twisted creation of the elf, which would explain the hatred of their founding. I think that this is important to note, that in the creation of the term, orc was meant to imply a warlike humanoid, descended from the elves. Elves in Tolkien’s world were fair and beautiful creatures. They first the first born, and they were the fairest of the children of Eru. In other words, the orc was not a natural creation by the creator, but rather a corruption of what was fair, beautiful and natural.

As I have stated in my earlier blog on the minotaur, I am not a fan of watering down the historic concepts of monsters. There is something about going back to the roots of the mythology that provides an authenticity, which one can rest upon. I agree that sometimes the redemption story of traditional villains resonates well with us, but they should be the outlying exception, not a general rule of thumb.

When I look over the various definitions, I see that first ed MM was very much in line with Tolkien. The 2nd edition started to water down the definition. By bringing in the term “mammalian,” it feels like the orcs are more neanderthalic tribes, rather than a corruption of nature. Third edition feels like it is moving back towards the original definition by bringing back the concept of a hatred for elves, and that they raid and pillage. I like the way that the third edition states, “…puts them at odds with all intelligent creatures.” This denotes a fundamental disagreement that can only have one outcome. Moving on to Paizo’s Classic Monsters Revisited, they have pulled out all the stops in describing the orc. They have separated the Orc from man (by with they mean all intelligent life forms), by calling them monsters, cockroaches and mad marauders. There is no doubt that these are the villains of the game, and to be more specific, they are monstrous villains. These are the monsters that mothers warn their children about. This is very strong imagery, on the nature of the orc.

Dropping down to the WoW game, the orc is now a noble savage. This leaves me cold. This feels like a watering down of the concept, and creating a grey space in which to comment on social injustices. By using the term noble savage, the image of the American Indian is called up, and that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. A noble savage has a totally different visualization, than a mad marauder or a cockroach. I could easily put some of the heroes of pulp fantasy into this category of noble savage. The term savage calls forth an image of wildness, not monstrous. Coupling this with the term noble, gives the savage honor. I just finished reading Almuric, and I could easily put the hero, Esau Cairn, in the category of savage noble. He calls forth the idea of a primitive, raw force that does know honor, and can act boldly for a greater good. There is something raw in Esau Cairn that resonates well with the reader, and harkens us back to an earlier untamed time, but that still can be called good. This is not where I want my villains to live.

Clearly, in my game, my orcs are villainous. They are monsters of the night. They are not natural, but a perverse creation of what was once fair and good. They are blight to all intelligent life, and I love the comparison to the cockroach. In the film, Fellowship of the Ring, there is a scene in Maria in which the orcs are crawling down the massive columns, and this is specifically done to link the image of the orc to a cockroach. Make no mistake about it, this is a direct statement on the identity of the orc.

While some may like their villains to be misunderstood, I think that this waters down the intrinsic alignment that is in the game. With the alignment system that is in the game, there is a calling to pick a side. One is not to be neutrally generic. The characters are not just thugs that are one step away from being villains, but rather they are called to understand the innate foulness of the creatures they face, and they need to be ready to answer the call, in order to drive out such filth when ever they encounter it.

To conclude, I opened up this topic to provide a discussion on what is an orc. I think it is important to understand where the monsters in the campaign line up in the big scheme of things. I am going to follow up on this point in my subsequent blogs on the paladin, as we wrap up that discussion.


Joseph said...

Something I find particularly fascinating is that in the original Anglo-Saxon, "orc" is defined as "demon", and said to come from the Latin "Orcus", one of the Roman gods of the underworld.


Could be interesting fodder for speculation...

Chgowiz said...

I was just read RE Howard's book Almuric on manybooks.net and found this following description.

At my first startled glance I thought it was a gorilla which stood before me. Even with the thought I realized that it was a man, but such a man as neither I nor any other Earthman had ever looked upon. He was not much taller than I, but broader and heavier, with a great spread of shoulders, and thick limbs knotted with muscles. He wore a loincloth of some silklike material girdled with a broad belt which supported a long knife in a leather sheath. High-strapped sandals were on his feet. These details I took in at a glance, my attention being instantly fixed in fascination on his face.

Such a countenance it is difficult to imagine or describe. The head was set squarely between the massive shoulders, the neck so squat as to be scarcely apparent. The jaw was square and powerful, and as the wide thin lips lifted in a snarl, I glimpsed brutal tusklike teeth. A short bristly beard masked the jaw, set off by fierce, up-curving mustaches. The nose was almost rudimentary, with wide flaring nostrils. The eyes were small, bloodshot, and an icy gray in color. From the thick black brows the forehead, low and receding, sloped back into a tangle of coarse, bushy hair. The ears were small and very close-set.

The mane and beard were very blue-black, and the creature's limbs and body were almost covered with hair of the same hue. He was not, indeed, as hairy as an ape, but he was hairier than any human being I had ever seen. I instantly realized that the being, hostile or not, was a formidable figure. He fairly emanated strength--hard, raw, brutal power. There was not an ounce of surplus flesh on him. His frame was massive, with heavy bones. His hairy skin rippled with muscles that looked iron-hard. Yet it was not altogether his body that spoke of dangerous power. His look, his carriage, his whole manner reflected a terrible physical might backed by a cruel and implacable mind. As I met the blaze of his bloodshot eyes, I felt a wave of corresponding anger. The stranger's attitude was arrogant and provocative beyond description. I felt my muscles tense and harden instinctively.

As I commented to someone in an email, if that's not a description of an orc, then I don't know one. I think our typical gaming version of an orc has a number of different sources.

It's interesting that a couple of the typical D&D types are found in Almuric - Guras as the orcs, Yagas as a winged version of the Drow. Perhaps the concepts do indeed go back further than just Tolkein's interpretation of Old English legends.

Mr Baron said...


I saw that too, and I suspect that the ole professor was well aware of that, and added a number other other concepts in to get to orc meaning humaniod monster.

None the less, it is very interesting to see that orc meant demon in the old anglo-saxon language. It definitely helps to solidify the image of orc as a monster, not a noble savage.

Mr Baron said...


Almuric is a great book. I read it in 3 days, and easily could have knocked it out in one day.

So I agree that the quote that you have listed out, very much sounds like an orc. When I was reading it, I had this picture of a blue neanderthalic gorilla.

I like the comparison of Yagas as winged drow. I did not make the connection when I was reading it, but now that you mention it...