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 least the group that serves as the point of view. They generally stand in contrast to the in group (“the Free Peoples of Middle-earth”, “the D&D party”, “the Scooby gang”, “the hegemony of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in the 1950s”, “polite society”, “player races”, etc). These are often exoticized in fiction, and are used as something for the reader to explore and examine (often in some furtherance of a point, metaphor, or aesthetic).

The last thing I want to talk about is “authorial intent”. Authorial intent is what the author consciously intends to put in their work. This includes stuff like intended coding, metaphor, allegory, etc. I am, personally, in the “Death of the Author” camp where everyone gets what they will out of a work regardless of the author’s intent. Example: minorities have been vocal about their enjoyment of the book “Ender’s Game” and many LBGT folks have found power in the word despite the author holding somewhat homophobic views.

Ok let’s get to orcs.

Yeah, that’s what orcs looked like in the 1st Edition of Dungeons and Dragons

Tolkien is famous for his dislike of allegory, as one of his prefaces includes the now famous lines, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history — true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” I honestly believe him. We’ve seen in his later letters get a little more allegorical but what I get from the man is generally that he REALLY liked two things: language and eurocentric mythologies. He was basically trying to create a sort of modern mythology in the styles of early mythical cycles and he mixed a lot of that into his works. He makes orcs “bad”. Tolkien is never subtle about “who is good and who is bad”, in the general sense. Yes, his characters have nuance and failings (even tragic ones) but you know “the good races” from “the bad races” and this is very explicit in his worldbuilding. I’m simplifying here but almost all evil in the world comes from the wicked Valar Melkor (or his influence), orcs included.

Orcs are coded as the “other”. They are basically the greatest hits of things that Tolkien thought were “ugly and bad”. He describes them as “a grim dark band, four score at least of large, swart, slant-eyed Orcs” (“swart” being “swarthy” and that meaning “dark-skinned”). They were also bow-legged/crook-legged, long-limbed (knuckles almost dragging on the ground) and refer to humans/elves/hobbits (etc) as “whiteskins” (Two Tower, Chapter 3). In a letter on the topic he describes orcs as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the least lovely Mongol-types.” (“The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien”, 1981) Intentional or not, we’ve got some offensive coding going on here.

Art by Ted Nasmith

While we’re on the topic of Tolkien and racial coding, let’s talk about Ghân-buri-Ghân (see Return of the King, Chapter 5). He, and his people the Drúedain, are coded as indigenous people and fill the role of the “noble savage”. They speak poorly, use blow pipes, have stumpy bodies, have tattoos, have guttural voices, look “unlovely”, wear skirts/loincloths made out of plants, and… I think you get the picture.

That having been said, do I think Tolkien went out of his way to make “orcs black people”? No. He didn’t. He DID go out of his way to make certain characters “look evil” and that’s what a man from his time and place thought looked “exotic” and like something that he could use as shorthand for the “other”. If you want some uncomfortable reads, try reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works. He’s 30 years earlier and Holmes isn’t as bad but all the talk about the qualities of “half negros” in The Lost World, which the book version of Jurassic Park was based on, is pretty hard to stomach today.

That’s not to say that this was just due to its time and place. Even his friend C.S Lewis wrote a critical analysis/review of his friend’s work (“The Dethronement of Power”) where he discusses a racial reading of it when he says “This is the basis of the whole Tolkinian world. I think some readers, seeing (and disliking) this rigid demarcation of black and white, imagine they have seen a rigid demarcation between black and white people.” (He does later go on to say that such people, while valid, may miss some of the nuance and complexity within the “good” and “bad” sides.)

Now we get to coding, authorial intent, and “the other” as expressed by fantasy races. Tolkien probably didn’t MEAN to make orcs coded as people of African or Asian descent but he sure as hell uses a lot of that as shorthand. People can, and do, read orcs as being coded that way though and, with that perspective in mind, you can see a lot of really uncomfortable potential allegorical readings of Tolkien where the noble-bright characters described as “whiteskins” by the evil orcs being good and true, win the day with gallantry, bloodshed, and tragic but noble sacrifices. I feel this is ultimately a failure of authorial intent but the reading that orcs are pretty racist caricatures is valid and supported by the textual evidence of the book. Media like Bright try (and, in that case, fail) to bring this to the forefront but it’s done much better in media that deconstruct this a bit more like the Warcraft lore. Warcraft orcs have some very interesting lore that kind of subverts this but subversion doesn’t always equal appropriate use.

I want to switch gears a bit here and talk about Guild Wars 2, particularly the Norn and the Hylek. The Norn are a player race that are tall, muscular, mountain-folk who live in the cold north, drink in large halls, and are in conflict with a dragon named Jormag. The Hylek are (formerly) xenophobic frog people who live in the jungle (and costal regions), have mesoamerican structures and names, are famous for their poison use, and live in tribes in the jungle. The Norn are coded, very specifically, as nordic heroes from mythology with a dash of celtic mysticism tossed in for flavor. The Hylek are Aztec/Mayan frog people. Both use this obvious coding to tell you things about them and how you should interact with them. Norn are big strong warriors (subverted at times by the system, but still) who value skill and strength (in its various forms). Hylek are somewhat xenophobic (initially), tribal, speak with an odd accent, have many odd cultural quirks, and build technologically backwards/simple things (compared to the other races of Tyria). The norn are a player race we are meant to identify with and the Hylek are “others” we are meant to interact with. We explore their jungle, learn about the quirks of their culture, and befriend them. They are a marvel to wonder at, a thing to explore, and an objective to reach. The Norn DO have this, as do all player races, in their starting area and while spectacle is certainly part of it, it’s also expressly to acclimate you to the norm of the game’s world and lore. The Norn are “normal” and the Hylek are one of a few dozen “others” in the game, exoticized to the point of experiential value.

Let’s talk about post-Tolkien orcs. Orcs, right after Tolkien were shorthand for “bad guys”. They looked ugly; they often by way of non-European traits or straight up animal traits like reptilian, demonic, or boar-like traits. We see a lot of “neanderthal’ traits in orcs but also a fair but of African/Asian and particularly Mongolian imagery invoked. Over time orcs have retained their “generally evil” “savage” aspects (let’s save what “savages” and “barbarians” are and how they relate to “the other” for another time) but allow them to be freely subverted. They are still generally antagonists but often members of that race can be good. Orcs are basically your iconic “other” though now- they are dangerous, don’t look like other “player races”, and largely exist outside the idea of polite society. There are subversions (LOTS of them) and attempt to reclaim them a bit but that’s a discussion for another day.

Suggested Further Reading/Viewing

1. “Why is the Only Good Orc a Dead Orc? The Dark Face of Racism Examined in Tolkien’s World” by Anderson Rearick Source: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/177550/pdf

2. Bright: The Apotheosis of Lazy Worldbuilding By Lindsay Ellis Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLOxQxMnEz8

3. “Tolkien And The Critics; Essays On J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings” by Neil David Isaacs (1968), in particular “The Dethronement of Power” by C.S Lewis Source: OpenLibrary.org has a good copy) https://openlibrary.org/books/OL5612501M/Tolkien_and_the_critics

4. My thoughts on the inclusion of racial/cultural traits into the creation of a species/culture/religion (etc) when writing fiction. Source: https://www.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10220686213532652&id=1455494765

Note: It’s really hard to find a really concise definition on the phrase “coding”.