Orcs: From Tolkien to Modern Times. (1300 Words)

Published by halisme in the blog halisme's blog. Views: 371

A few days ago I posted a thread asking people what they thought an orc was and got consistent answers in terms of them being large, green and generally aggressive in some way. This thread was inspired by another which was talking about orcs which were culturally Aztec, and a lecture I had just been on to structuralism and its examination of stories, with me, then applying it to the various fantasy races as depicted within generic fantasy, specifically the brand set somewhere in Western Europe where they have plate armour, but neither the Renaissance or gunpowder has arrived yet.

For the purpose of this thing(, not sure what to label it, it's not formal enough to be an essay, but it's too well thought out to be a rant,) I'm going to be examining elves and dwarfs in comparison with orcs. The reasons for not using humans have a solid real-world basis in that I am pretty convinced I am one so can say that they're real and that hobbits still don't have the same cultural proliferation as the others. They're often in fantasy works, but sitting somewhere in the background.

Now, elves and dwarfs are very consistent in their popular portrayals in terms of the appearance of the body. If you google "fantasy elf", all of them look like the same species, specifically pointed ear humans. Furthermore, they tend to have long lifespans, or have had in the past, such as in Warcraft (hereby referred to as WC), or claim to have had in (Dragon Age (hereby referred to as DA), nothing explicitly stated in this). Furthermore, they also tend to have a fading power motif, common in LOTR, DA, WC and Warhammer Fantasy Battle,(hereby referred to as WH, a lot of acronyms, but this is better for all of us). On top of this, they tend to be seen as "wiser" and more in tune with nature, though this varies massively as well. The same is true of dwarfs, for the most part, being consistent in appearance and culture across representations, that of short bearded folk who live underground and place great value in material wealth. The only franchise I can think of off the top of my head that bunks these trends is The Elder Scrolls.

Orcs though, orcs are more of an issue, and for this, I'm going to have to work through the representation of orcs within the popular and consciousness and the niches that I know, but my experience is by no means all-encompassing, so, here goes. The first version of an orc that appears within popular consciousness is with Tolkien's Lord of the Ring, with him likely taking the word from Beowulf. Within his work, orcs are presented as corrupted elves. As we only ever hear an orc speak two times within the work, we know very little of their culture beyond what Tolkien has said on them, that being very little ins this regard. All we know is that they know they are deformed and basically hate themselves and want to take that aggression out on the rest of the world, however, it's also worth noting that goblins and Uruk-Hai are also all orcs within the text, just different names and varying strains that are more suited to living in their environments. In terms of appearance, I shall use Wikipedia's words on the matter:

"Orcs are described as ugly and filthy fanged humanoids. The largest can reach near-human height, but they are almost always shorter, and some are as small as Hobbits (since Frodo and Sam disguise themselves as such when they enter Mordor). In contrast, crossbreeds between Men and Orcs are called "man-high, but with goblin-faces."[14] However, some Orcs are very broad, if not tall. Many Orcs have long arms, like monkeys or apes. Many of them also have crooked backs and legs.

The next major development in my mind comes from Warhammer, which, the name of all things grim and dark, retooled the orcs to make them something different. Tolkien's orcs were sentient, aware of what they were and angry at the fact. They wanted to make the world as ugly as them and were threatened by Sauron to make them work for him. This is not the case in Warhammer. In Warhammer, an orc fights because that is what it loves to do, and what it has evolved to do. They are, while cunning, profoundly stupid, and utterly convinced that they are the best both personally and in terms of their species, and their culture is based on the football (soccer) hooliganism that existed in the eighties and nineties and still persists to this day. The only thing they have in common culturally is that both groups do a lot of fighting, and want the rest of the world to be like them. Furthermore, unlike Tolkien, they aren't a tortured offshoot of another race, but their own distinct ball of anger and "fightiness". For reference, here is an image of a Warhammer orcs face.


Now, we're going to run it against Wikipedia's description. He looks pretty ugly, though he has tusks instead of fangs, in the lore that guy is four metres high, though the average orc is the same size of a human, though they would be taller if they didn't slouch. They are very broad, and they do have the long arms. However, there are two primary differences in terms of the face. The first being the profoundly large mouth, and the nose being two holes in the face and not a risen surface, and I'd also like to say that this is where orcs being green comes from. Now, while the Warhammer orcs never entered massively popular consciousness, I'm mentioning them to show how you can still follow the common theme, but have a variance on it, and because it provides a smooth transition into the next type.

The Warcraft orcs are the first time that an orc has been presented in a sympathetic manner. Once again, they are their own distinct species, and in fact alien to the main world in which the games take place. In the first game in 1994, the orcs did not have much character of their own for two reasons. The first being that the game was limited to using screens of text to get its plot across, the second being that it was originally supposed to be a Warhammer game. Meaning that, it was only in the second game, did they start to develop their own personality, and for this, I'm going to have to go into a bit of story. In Warcraft, the regular orcs have brown skin and living in a tribal, shamanistic culture with a reverence for elemental spirits. They then made a deal which involved drinking demon blood which turned them green, made them stronger, and turned them into bloodthirsty conquerors. At the moment, they're still warlike and aggressive, but seeking redemption for accepting the deal, and actually fighting. And here's an image:


While the face is the same, the nose is much more defined, and there's a lack of any sort of hunch in the posture. These orcs have a more noble bearing to typically western sensibilities, and their in-game culture reflects that. Now, due to World of Warcraft's horrific popularity, and the fact that the film came out last year, it's safe to say that it's going to be pretty influential as well.

I was tempted to do reference The Elder Scrolls here, though this is already over a thousand words meaning quite a few people won't read it anyway. Anyway, to those who have read it, thank you, and I hope it was enjoyable.
I.A. By the Barn and zoupskim like this.
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