Orcs: The Irredeemable Race?

Most of the magical races found in fantasy literature have been around in some form or another for thousands of years. Both elves and dwarves stretch back to pre-Christian Northern Europe, found in the lósalfar and svartalfar of the Nordic mythos. There is another race, however, that has become as much as staple of fantasy literature as elves and dwarves: orcs.

Although the term “orc” was first applied to the evil, corrupted race invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, they were based on goblins, which date back almost as far as the svartalfar that would eventually morph into dwarves. A medieval concept, the word “goblin” means “demon.” It shares an etymology with a similar being known as a kobold and with the metal cobalt. Cobalt was known as a demon metal because alchemists thought it was useless. As a corrupted, evil race, however, goblins and orcs became what they are today primarily thanks to Tolkien’s stories.

Now, I have to admit something; the idea of an entire fully evil race make me uncomfortable. It’s how many governments portray their very human enemies to make it okay to kill them. I realize that orcs aren’t human, but even if they are entirely evil, it’s kind of lazy writing to leave it at that. Why are they all evil? Why are there no redeeming features? What are they anyway? Is there even any individuality? Here are the ways that different authors and companies, starting with J.R.R. Tolkien, have treated the subject:

An orc from the film version of "Lord of the Rings"

An orc from the film version of “Lord of the Rings”


When Tolkien wrote his stories about Middle Earth and the earlier age in Beleriand, he wrote the orcs, not as a redeemable, noble barbarian race, but as demons. The very name orc means “demon.” Tolkien’s orcs were originally elves who had been captured, tortured, and corrupted by the power of Morgoth, the Satan figure of the world. That said, they were entirely evil, broken, bestial, and monstrous. They had cities, as evident in the Goblintown of The Hobbit. (Tolkien’s goblins were really just smaller orcs.) If you’re going to be including a race of purely evil, irredeemable monsters, then giving them corrupted, almost demonic souls would seem the way to go. Just know that Tolkien did it first. (That’s not saying much, since he did most things in modern fantasy first.)

A half-orc barbarian from Dungeons and Dragons

A half-orc barbarian from Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons has never been known for deep philosophy, but they have been known for repeating things from legend, myth, and…well, Tolkien in ways that brought fantasy to the late-Twentieth Century mind. In D&D, the evil nature of orcs, or much else for that matter, isn’t explained beyond worshipping evil gods, but that’s understandable. The point really is to just kill them and loot their still-warm corpses. My point is that D&D, and other roleplaying games, for that matter, doesn’t need to explain why they’re evil. It’s basically pulp adventure.

That said, they do have half-orcs, brutal characters best suited to being barbarians that can, at least, be redeemed through being player characters, or PCs.

An orc from Blizzard's "World of Warcraft"

An orc from Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft”


With D&D’s inclusion of a semi-redeemable orcish, or half-orcish, character type, Blizzard went a step further. In their Warcraft series, players can take on the role of the orcs. While they are, indeed, the enemies of humans, this means that orcs are seen in a more sympathetic light. They’re still brutal, harsh, and often barbaric, but they resemble more the humanized half-orc of Dungeons and Dragons than the demonic, corrupted orcs of Tolkien.

Originally an agrarian race from another dimension, orcs were enslaved and corrupted by demons and really did become what Tolkien envisioned. However, by the time that World of Warcraft takes place, they’ve been freed and are now little more than a race of proud, sometimes noble barbarians with a dark and violent past. In other words, just another world culture.


Then there’s another way of going about writing your orcs, goblins, or other villain race. I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s essentially making them an irredeemable evil, but not trying to explain why. At least in Dungeons and Dragons, they were tribal groups that worshiped evil, violent gods. In Eragon, Christopher Paolini included the Urgals. Yes, he’s totally not ripping of Tolkien, because they’re not orcs; they’re Urgals. Right, whatever. They’re a race of baby-skewering (no, really) evil people whose existence is never really explained. Never explained, that’s my point. They’re just there to be hated, feared, and killed, kind of like the barbarian hordes of racially insensitive movies from the 1940s and 1950s.

Okay, you know what? I realize that I’ll be seen as being silly. They’re not human, so make them whatever you want. Just do it right. If you just say, “They’re evil,” and actually tell us why, that’s fine, great. But if you don’t give an explanation, it’s just lazy. When you make a world, especially when there are racial issues (even non-human racial issues) at play, then you need to be able to explain everything that you decide on.

Know your world, and know why it is the way it is, especially why your enemy races are the way they are. No one likes a flat character, and the culture is a character in itself.


On a related side note: I’ll be starting a series of blog posts about the steps to take in creating a race and culture of your own, and, for a bit of variety, since most seem to focus on human cultures, I’ll be dealing with an orcish nation from my world, perhaps, even throw in some short stories about them.


5 thoughts on “Orcs: The Irredeemable Race?

  1. In regards to Urgals maybe not knowing is the best feature possible for RPG world building. Humans are curious and we need things like science, religion, mathematics to explain the why’s of the world.

    I think players will naturally want to decipher the why. Then for world building purposes a savage race’s origin is equally valid if its Tolkien, D&D, Warcraft, or Paolini. The role playing treasure of expecting one thing and later discovering something else to be the case is good times.

    As for specifically Paolini there are some interesting bits to think about. Can we humanize something that’s not human? Can we expect human standards of things like motive and origin, a pointed ‘why’ as the source of their state of mind. Do we even have that chance when we’re too busy fighting them for the survival of nations and species?

    Maybe it’s worth examining what we know about Cro-Magnon man versus Neanderthals. How did they go from co-existence to one thriving and the other becoming extinct? Can we hold Neanderthals to the standard of modern man? They were sentient but did they harbor a soul, that critical spark that spans the gap from beast to man.

    • You have some good points. I could understand if something isn’t explained, but I think that the world builder, at least, should understand why things are the way they are.

      One thing to consider is that, even in religions and mythologies, such as Hindu stories of various non-human races (such as the Nagas) they were still indivudualized.

      I’m not intending to say that having a decidedly evil race is wrong, but at least the writer should understand it.

      On a side note, recent studies have actually shown that Neanderthals were simply a different kind of human, and that they eventually merged with homo sapiens.

  2. Hi Thomas! Wow, this is fascinating stuff. I have always loved the explanation that Tolkien gave for his evil orcs. It’s brilliant. I’ve truly enjoyed this. I’m following you now. I would love to have you as a guest blogger on my blog sometime. 🙂

  3. Just a side note about Paolini’s Urgal. It’s been a while since I read his series and it wasn’t the most impressive of series, so I don’t remember all the details. But after the first book he did give the Urgal a little more depth. I think he made the whole baby-skewering incident into something the main bad guy made them do, but in the later books he had them allying with the good guys and portrayed them as kind of a barbarian warrior race.
    I wanna say his first book he portrayed most of the races as the stereotypes the humans in his story tended to see them as, and then later he tried to put more depth in.

    • I’ll admit, I wasn’t impressed with the first book, so I didn’t read past it. Thanks for the info. That makes sense.

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