Orcs and “Evil Races” in Fantasy
by Helen Gould
When most people think of an orc, it’s likely that the first thing they think of are the creatures from The Lord of the Rings. On the surface, looking at it from a “traditional” Western fantasy view of good guys vs. bad guys, orcs make sense as a concept: someone needs to be the mooks for the major villains, after all.
Tolkien’s orcs are mainly two-dimensional, nameless villains that attack in hordes to threaten our beloved heroes. Most of them have no character other than to be violent antagonists. They are almost universally spoken of in tones of dread and disgust in the books, though there are some interesting moments in the films that raise some questions and show them as individuals.
!(/uploads/lurtz.jpeg “\“Lurtz,\” Orc from The Fellowship of the Ring”)
These include the short life of Lurtz, the Uruk-Hai who kills Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring and is notable for his determination and leadership; the in-fighting between the two different kinds of orcs kidnapping Merry and Pippin in The Two Towers; and in Return of the King, further arguments and violence between orcs (which also happens in the books) and a particularly vicious orc captain.
On the whole, these snapshots simply further the portrayal of orcs as universally violent and lacking reason. Though the iconic line “Looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!” from The Two Towers does imply that orcs know what a menu is and therefore what a restaurant is, it’s unlikely that the writers intended for us to look very deeply into those implications.
The trend of depicting orcs as all-but-mindless evil creatures used as a workforce for powerful bad guys continued with the next most famous portrayal of orcs: tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), which was heavily influenced by Tolkien.
Again, in this setting, orcs were mainly obstacles to be chopped through by the players so that they could achieve their goal. Because of the gaming element, there is a strong factor of interpretation: the players can always choose to ignore parts of the setting if they don’t like them. But the book is still there, and is intended to guide the people playing the game and indicate what kind of stories can happen in that world.
These texts have heavily influenced the fantasy genre in both fiction and games, but their portrayal of orcs is a significant example of a very problematic trope: sentient races who are biologically evil.
This idea of a whole race (particularly one described as dark, black, and/or swarthy, or which has “tribal” elements in their descriptions, as with orcs in Tolkien and in D&D) all behaving and thinking in the same way is incredibly problematic.
The idea of an entire race all being the same way is called biological essentialism: the belief that a person’s qualities comes from something “innate” in their genes and heritage. It’s the same idea that leads to things like phrenology (the pseudo-scientific notion that physical characteristics, such as skull shape, can predict a person’s personality and future) and eugenics (the view that one could and should “breed out” undesirable qualities). Both of these warped philosophies have led to the oppression of marginalized groups and ultimately many genocides over the years.
So the propagation of these ideas in fiction is something that authors ought to consider avoiding—or, if you want to include it as part of an oppressive system in your world-building, do so with a very critical eye and a careful hand to ensure that you show it as a false and dangerous view.
We’ve come a long way since The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons were first published, but we need to go further. A good example of this is Robin Hobbs’ Realm of the Elderlings series, which (alongside an over-arching plot about worldwide politics and dragons) explores oppression and prejudice on several levels, including gender, sexuality, and prejudice against magical minorities.
The key is to treat these issues with the detailed thought and care that they deserve. Don’t take any shortcuts, and make no assumptions. If you want to include oppression, you will always need to do your research, consider it in all of your world-building, and decide how it impacts your characters. These are not issues that can be discussed lightly, so make sure that you always look into them with the appropriate depth.