An orc is a fictional humanoid monster akin to a goblin. Orcs were brought into modern usage by the fantasy writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, especially The Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien's works, orcs are a brutish, aggressive, ugly and malevolent race, contrasting with the benevolent Elves and serving an evil power, though they share a human sense of morality. His description of them has been criticised as caricature-like, even racist by some commentators, though others have noted that Tolkien was clearly anti-racist by intention.
Mythological monsters with names similar to "orc" can be found in the Old English poem Beowulf, in Early Modern poetry, and in Northern European folk tales and fairy tales. Tolkien stated that he took the name from Beowulf.
Tolkien's concept of orcs has been adapted and imported into the fantasy fiction of other authors, and into role-playing and strategy games such as Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer, and Warcraft.


Old English

The Orcus is glossed as "Orc, þyrs, oððe hel-deofol" in the 10th century Old English Cleopatra Glossary, about which Thomas Wright wrote, "Orcus was the name for Pluto, the god of the infernal regions, hence we can easily understand the explanation of hel-deofol. Orc, in Anglo-Saxon, like thyrs, means a spectre, or goblin." The Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal defines ork in the closely related Old Dutch language as a monster, and points at a possible origin in the Old Dutch nork "petulant, crabbed, evil person".
The term is used just once in Beowulf as the plural compound orcneas, one of the tribes alongside the elves and ettins condemned by God:
s eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, "ogres and elves and devil-corpses", inspiring Tolkien to create orcs and other races
Orcneas is translated "evil spirits" above, but its meaning is uncertain. Klaeber suggested it consisted of orc < L. orcus "the underworld" + neas "corpses", which the translation "evil spirits" failed to do justice. It is generally supposed to contain an element -né, cognate to Gothic naus and Old Norse nár, both meaning 'corpse'. The usual Old English word for corpse is líc, but -né appears in nebbed 'corpse bed', and in dryhtné 'dead body of a warrior', where dryht is a military unit. If *orcné is to be glossed as orcus'' 'corpse', the meaning may be "corpse from Orcus ", or "devil-corpse", understood as some sort of walking dead monster.

Early Modern

A monster called Orcus is mentioned in Edmund Spenser's 1590 Faerie Queene. The Oxford English Dictionary records an Early Modern period orke, meaning "ogre", in Samuel Holland's 1656 fairy tale Don Zara, a pastiche of Spanish romances such as Don Quixote.
It is presumed that 'orke'/'ogre' came into English via continental fairy-tales, especially from the 17th-century French writer Charles Perrault, who borrowed most of his stories and developed his "ogre" from the 16th-century Italian writers Giovanni Francesco Straparola and Giambattista Basile, who wrote in the Naples dialect, stating that he was passing on oral folktales from his region. In the tales, Basile used huorco, huerco or uerco, the Neapolitan form of Italian orco, lit. "Ogre", to describe a large, hairy, tusked, mannish beast who could speak, lived in a dark forest or garden and might capture and eat humans.


Stated etymology

Tolkien began the modern use of the English term "orc" to denote a race of evil, humanoid creatures. His earliest Elvish dictionaries include the entry Ork "monster", "ogre", "demon", together with orqindi and "ogresse". He sometimes used the plural form orqui in his early texts. He stated that the Elvish words for orc were derived from a root ruku, "fear, horror"; in Quenya, orco, plural orkor; in Sindarin orch, plurals yrch and Orchoth. They had similar names in other Middle-earth languages: uruk in Black Speech ; in the language of the Drúedain gorgûn, "ork-folk"; in Khuzdul rukhs, plural rakhâs; and in the language of Rohan and in the Common Speech, orka.
Tolkien stated in a letter to the novelist Naomi Mitchison that his Orcs had been influenced by George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin.
He explained that his "orc" was "derived from Old English orc 'demon', but only because of its phonetic suitability", and
Tolkien also observed a connection with the Latin word orcus, noting that "the word used in translation of Q urko, S orch is Orc. But that is because of the similarity of the ancient English word orc, 'evil spirit or bogey', to the Elvish words. There is possibly no connextion between them."


Orcs are of human shape, and of varying size; in The Hobbit they are called "goblins", though Thorin's Elvish sword from Gondolin is named as "Orcrist, Goblin-cleaver, but the goblins called it simply Biter". They are depicted as ugly and filthy, with a taste for human flesh. They are fanged, bow-legged and long-armed; some have dark skin as if burned. Most are small and avoid daylight. In Isengard, the Wizard Saruman has bred a large and powerful kind of orc, the Uruk-Hai, who are not afraid of daylight. Orcs eat meat, including the flesh of Men, and may indulge in cannibalism: in The Two Towers, Grishnákh, an Orc from Mordor, claims that the Isengard Orcs eat orc-flesh. Whether that is true or spoken in malice is uncertain: an Orc flings Pippin stale bread and a "strip of raw dried flesh... the flesh of he dared not guess what creature".
The orcs from Mordor speak the Black Speech, a language invented for them by Sauron, while those from Isengard speak other tongues; to understand each other, they use the Common Speech, such as Pippin overheard and understood.

In-fiction origins

Tolkien proposed several theories for the origins of orcs. In The Tale of Tinúviel, Orcs originate as "foul broodlings of Melkor who fared abroad doing his evil work". In The Fall of Gondolin Tolkien wrote that "all that race were bred by Melkor of the subterranean heats and slime." In The Silmarillion, Orcs are East Elves enslaved, tortured, and bred by Morgoth; they "multiplied" like Elves and Men. Tolkien stated in a 1962 letter to a Mrs. Munsby that Orc-females must have existed. In The Fall of Gondolin Morgoth made them of slime by sorcery, "bred from the heats and slimes of the earth". Or, they were "The Orcs were beasts of humanized shape", possibly, Tolkien wrote, Elves mated with beasts, and later Men. Or again, Tolkien noted, they could have been fallen Maiar, perhaps a kind called Boldog, like lesser Balrogs; or corrupted Men.
Half-orcs appear in The Lord of the Rings, created by interbreeding of Orcs and Men; they were able to go in sunlight. The "sly Southerner" in The Fellowship of the Ring looks "more than half like a goblin"; similar but more orc-like hybrids appear in The Two Towers "man-high, but with goblin-faces, sallow, leering, squint-eyed."

Alleged racism

The scholars of English literature William N. Rogers II and Michael R. Underwood note that a widespread element of late 19th century Western culture was fear of moral decline and degeneration; this led to eugenics. In The Two Towers, the Ent Treebeard says:
The film-maker Andrew Stewart, writing in CounterPunch, cites this speech as an instance of "mid-twentieth century scientific racism.. which alarmingly spells out the notion of 'race mixing' as a great sin". Stewart notes, too, that the geography of Middle-earth deliberately pits the good West against the evil East; John Magoun, writing in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, concurs, stating that Middle-earth has a "fully expressed moral geography". Any moral bias towards a north-western geography, however, was directly addressed by Tolkien himself in a letter to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer, who had recently interviewed him in 1967:
In a private letter, Tolkien describes orcs as:
's film versions of Tolkien's Orcs have been compared to wartime caricatures of the Japanese.|alt=Poster showing fanged caricature of "Tokio kid," a Japanese person pointing a bloody knife at a sign that reads "Much waste of material make so-o-o-o happy! Thank you!"
A variety of critics and commentators have noted that orcs are somewhat like caricatures of non-Europeans. The journalist David Ibata writes that the orcs in Peter Jackson's Tolkien films look much like "the worst depictions of the Japanese drawn by American and British illustrators during World War II." The literary critic Jenny Turner, writing in the London Review of Books, endorses Andrew O'Hehir's comment on Salon.com that orcs are "by design and intention a northern European's paranoid caricature of the races he has dimly heard about". O'Hehir describes orcs as "a subhuman race bred by Morgoth and/or Sauron that is morally irredeemable and deserves only death. They are dark-skinned and slant-eyed, and although they possess reason, speech, social organization and, as Shippey mentions, a sort of moral sensibility, they are inherently evil." He notes Tolkien's own description of them, saying it could scarcely be more revealing of his attitude to the "Other", but excuses him saying that "it is also the product of his background and era, like most of our inescapable prejudices. At the level of conscious intention, he was not a racist or an anti-Semite" and mentions his letters to this effect. In a letter to his son, Christopher who was serving in the RAF in the Second World War, Tolkien wrote of orcs as appearing on both sides of the conflict:
The scholar of English literature Robert Tally describes the orcs as a demonized enemy, despite Tolkien's own objections to demonization of the enemy in the two World Wars. The Germanic studies scholar Sandra Ballif Straubhaar however argues against the "recurring accusations" of racism, stating that "a polycultured, polylingual world is absolutely central" to Middle-earth, and that readers and filmgoers will easily see that. The historian and Tolkien scholar Jared Lobdell likewise disagreed with any notions of racism inherent or latent in Tolkien's works, and wondered "if there were a way of writing epic fantasy about a battle against an evil spirit and his monstrous servants without its being subject to speculation of racist intent".

A shared morality

The Tolkien critic Tom Shippey writes that the orcs in The Lord of the Rings were almost certainly created just to equip Middle-earth with "a continual supply of enemies over whom one need feel no ", or in Tolkien's words from The Monsters and the Critics "the infantry of the old war" ready to be slaughtered. Shippey states that all the same, orcs share the human concept of good and evil, with a familiar sense of morality, though he notes that, like many people, orcs are quite unable to apply their morals to themselves. In his view, Tolkien, as a Roman Catholic, took it as a given that "evil cannot make, only mock", so orcs could not have an equal and opposite morality to that of men or elves. Shippey notes that in The Two Towers, the orc Gorbag disapproves of the "regular elvish trick" of seeming to abandon a comrade, as he wrongly supposes Sam has done with Frodo. Shippey describes the implied view of evil as Boethian, that evil is the absence of good; he notes however that Tolkien did not agree with that point of view, believing that evil had to be actively combatted, with war if necessary, the Manichean position.

Other authors

In the fantasy series The Harrow, author Philip Mazza includes a race of orcs or the Gulguthra in the ancient tongue. The Gulguthra are members of the Brood, or En' Rauko, an evil race that occupy a post-apocalypse fantasy world. They have low jutting foreheads, snouts, ray-green skin, reddish eyes, large canine teeth, and short pointed ears.
As a response to their type-casting as generic evil characters or antagonists, some novels portray events from the point of view of the orcs, or present them as more sympathetic characters. Mary Gentle's 1992 novel Grunts! presents orcs as generic infantry, used as metaphorical cannon-fodder. A series of books by Stan Nicholls,, focuses on the conflicts between orcs and humans, from the orcs' point of view. In Terry Pratchett's Discworld series, Orcs are a race that is close to extinction; in his Unseen Academicals it is said that "When the Evil Emperor wanted fighters he got some of the Igors to turn goblins into orcs" to be used as weapons in a Great War, "encouraged" by whips and beatings.

In games

Orcs based on The Lord of the Rings have become a fixture of fantasy fiction and role-playing games, where orcs and goblins are usually distinct races of goblinoids. In the fantasy tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, orcs were one of the earliest creatures introduced in the game, and were largely based upon those described by Tolkien. The D&D orcs are a tribal race of hostile and bestial humanoids with muscular frames, large canine teeth and snouts rather than human-like noses. The orc appears in the first edition Monster Manual, where it is described as a fiercely competitive bully, a tribal creature often living underground. The mythology and attitudes of the orcs are described in detail in Dragon #62, in Roger E. Moore's article, "The Half-Orc Point of View", and the orc is further detailed in Paizo Publishing's book Classic Monsters Revisited, on pages 52–57.
Games Workshop's Warhammer universe features cunning and brutal Orcs in a fantasy setting, who are not so much driven by a need to do evil but rather to obtain fulfilment through the act of war. In the Warhammer 40,000, a series of science-fiction games, they are a green-skinned alien species, called 'Orks'. Orcs are an important race in the Warcraft, a high fantasy franchise created by Blizzard Entertainment. They are variously savage or "savage but noble" warriors and shamans, prodigiously muscled, with broad noses and distinctive tusked mouths. Several Orc characters from the Warcraft universe are playable heroes in the crossover multiplayer game Heroes of the Storm.
In Hasbro's Heroscape products, Orcs come from the pre-historic planet Grut. They are blue-skinned, with prominent tusks or horns. Several Orc champions ride prehistoric animals (including a Tyrannosaurus rex, a Velociraptor and sabre-tooth tigers, known as Swogs.