In the writings of Tolkien it is said that in the Elder days, within the deepest pits of Utumno, the first dark lord Morgoth committed his greatest act of blasphemy. For in that time he captured many of the newly risen race of Elves and took them to his dungeons where, with hideous acts of torture, he made ruined and terrible forms of life. From these he bred a goblin race of slaves, who were as loathsome as Elves were fair. These were the Orcs, a multitude brought forth in shapes twisted by pain and hate. The only joy of these creatures was in the pain of others, for the blood that flowed within Orcs was both black and cold. Their stunted form was hideous: bent, bow-legged and squat. Their arms were long and strong as those of an ape, and their skin was black as wood that has been charred by flame. The jagged fangs in their wide mouths were yellow, their tongues red and thick, and their nostrils and faces were broad and flat. Their eyes were crimson gashes, like narrow slits in black iron grates behind which hot coals burn. Tolkien’s Orcs have been copied many times in fantasy media – debased, changed and even made humorous. But nothing that has been published since the Lord of the Rings has truly done justice to this, one of Tolkien’s most original and fearsome creations: the brood of Morgoth, spawned from the deepest, foulest pits of Utumno.
The term ‘Orc’ was probably derived by Tolkien from the Old English poem Beowulf, which refers to orcneas or ‘demon-corpses’, and to another Old English word orc-thyrs or ‘orc-giants’. Certainly, the description in that poem of those very similar monsters Grendel and his mother rings true also for Orcs: no hie faeder cunnon, ‘men know of no father for them’. The Oxford English Dictionary refers to the word orke, used in 1656, in a way that is reminiscent of giants and ogres, that came into English via continental fairy tales.Within Tolkien’s own invented languages, the Elvish words for Orc are derived from a root ruk, referring to fear and horror, from which is derived an expanded form of the root uruk (as in ‘Uruk-hai’). Tolkien once stated in a letter that in creating Orcs he was influenced by the goblins of George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. Certainly, in Tolkien’s published work, the terms were synonymous. The Hobbit generally uses the term goblin, while the Lord of the Rings prefers orc. The opponents of the dwarves in the “Dwarf and Goblin War” of The Hobbit are described as Orcs in Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings. No distinction is made by size; large Orcs, including the Uruk-hai, are just as much goblins as are smaller ones.
Despite this, there are variations among Tolkien’s Orcs. The Uruks (who called themselves Uruk-hai) are larger, more powerful and cruel and have black skin; they call smaller and weaker Orcs snaga (“slave”). Tolkien wrote of Saruman crossbreeding Orcs and Men, producing the half-orcs and goblin-men, mentioned by Gamling at Helm’s Deep, that “will not quail at the sun”. Most of the Orcs Tolkien describe seem to be in the service of one or another of the Dark Powers, whether Morgoth, Sauron or Saruman. However, some Orcs seem to have worked independently. Before and during the time of The Hobbit, some Orcs had Mount Gundabad as their capital, the Orcs of the Misty Mountains were apparently ruled by one “Great Goblin”, the former Dwarf-realm of Moria was held by Orcs under first Azog and then his son Bolg. Not that they would balk at turning on their own kind – there are frequent hints of cannibalism among Orcs. Grishnákh, leader of the Mordor Orcs, accuses Saruman’s Uruks of eating Orc-flesh, which they angrily deny. In Cirith Ungol, Gorbag suggests that Frodo (recently poisoned by Shelob) should “go in the pot”; Shagrat indicates that Gorbag could be “for the pot” for making such a suggestion. Shagrat then threatens to eat a disobedient Orc, and after killing Gorbag he licks his blood from the blade.
Tolkien’s Orcs have been, and still are, a major influence on fantasy fiction and games; they are the literary precursors of the Orcs (and similar races) of many different settings. The Orcs of Warhammer, Dungeons & Dragons and other games most often differ from Tolkien’s Orcs in that they are taller than humans (instead of always being shorter) and usually have green or greyish-green skin (instead of dark or yellowish skin). In the 1980s, another Orc archetype was introduced by the table-top miniature war game Warhammer Fantasy Battle, a heavily muscled, green-skinned barbarian with exaggerated tusks, brow, and lower jaw, whose personality is not so much evil as crudely thuggish, often to a comical degree. This style of Orc has since become popular in a vast number of fantasy settings and games, including a signature of the Warcraft series of computer games and spin-offs. The proliferation of this somewhat diminished form of Orc, in contrast to Tolkien’s original, more demonic version, strangely mirrors what happened to this race in Middle Earth. After the defeat of the Dark Lord at the end of the Third Age, the Orcs perished like straw before flames. Though some survived, they never again rose in great numbers, but dwindled and became a minor Goblin folk possessed of but a rumour of their ancient evil power.