Are Orcs Racist?

Scott Gladstein on 2020-05-13

Ready for “a white male game designer in his 30s gives his take on if orcs are racist in Tolkien’s work and beyond?”. That aside, I do have some credentials regarding this. I literally have a degree in this kind of stuff; my undergrad in Game Development actually had a class specifically on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and my term paper was on the metaphor of sexual dymorphic traits as embodied by elves and dwarves. I’ve also published fantasy works for the better part of a decade and made at least part of my living on it. So, argumentum ad verecundiam, out of the way- do I think orcs are racist?

Yes, but with an asterisk. Short version: not via conscious authorial intent. Long version: read on.

Let’s start with the definition of some terms: Coding is a term used to describe something that uses qualities or elements of something else (often a race, ethnicity, culture, gender identity, religion, or sexual identity) to signify via shorthand certain information to the reader (I’ll use written media as my focus here). An example would be to have a character use a stereotypical “hick” or “redneck” accent and/or word choice to signify that the reader that they are supposed to be “unintelligent” or “uncultured”. Writers use shorthand a lot; it helps the reader identify with whatever they encounter in a more relatable way, means the writer doesn’t need to stop the flow and explain 30 things to you, and allows (if intentional) the author to SAY something about the topic/group/people/identity.

Metaphor is when something is symbolic of something else. In the Lord of the Flies, the conch shell is a metaphor for law and order, in Huck Finn the river is a metaphor for the journey of life (and possibly death).

Let’s talk allegory next (I promise I’m eventually getting to the fantasy stuff soon). Allegory is a term used to describe a work whose real meaning can be interpreted to have a hidden meaning. (Often through use of parallels, metaphors, coding, and other tricks). In Narnia, Aslan’s story and the general plot of the books parallel the life of Jesus Christ and as such Narnia is often read as a Biblical allegory.

“The Other” refers to the concept of someone outside of the “in group”. These are generally people/creatures outside the “good group” or at…