Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: Orcs

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on yet another Tolkien propagated fantasy trope, Orcs.

Derived from the Anglo-Saxon word for demon, J.R.R. Tolkien used the word orc in his works to describe an antagonistic race of humanoid creatures that served the dark lord Sauron in his attempts to conquer Middle-earth. Originally purposed by his predecessor and mentor Morgoth, the orcish horde served as the foot soldiers of Sauron's armies.

They were depicted as a hateful, animalistic lot with natural tendencies toward violence, chaos, and bloodshed. Even before the dark lord's rise, they were feared and despised by the free folk of Middle-earth, driven into the recesses of mountains and caves.

Since Tolkien's influence, orcs have been seen in countless works of fantasy (and even some science fiction). They almost always feature the warlike demeanor of their literary progenitors, though their origins and level of civilization vary from writer to writer. They usually remain an antagonistic force, opposed to the human protagonists of the worlds they inhabit, but some works of fiction have featured orcs that have integrated with larger society and found peace (often begrudgingly).

A great deal of my experience with the various flavors of orc in fantasy comes from video games. One of the most well known game worlds to feature orcs is Azeroth, the realm explored in the Warcraft franchise. Early games in the series focused on a war between orcs and humans. Eventually, it was revealed that orcs were not inherently evil, but were being influenced by demonic forces.

My favorite though, has to be the Orsimer of the Elder Scrolls series. This race of orcs descended from elves, but their appearance and demeanor became corrupt when the god they worshiped was cursed and remade.

In my own fantasy worlds, I've made an attempt to stray from the typical mold of character races. It's not that I have anything against orcs, elves, or halflings. In the right hands, these character tropes can still be put to good use in a riveting story. As a reader, I still get a kick out of the Tolkien mold. But, I don't think you need ghoulish monsters for conflict in a fantasy world--man can be monstrous enough to fill that role. It's not pointy ears or green skin that make fantasy stories what they are; it's the compelling spirit of a story too enchanting to take place in the real world. It's that pulse of magic you feel beneath the world when you're engaging it.

Still, I never rule anything out. And if there's one thing about orcs . . . they always seem to invade when you least expect them.

Recommended Reading:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Thraxas by Martin Scott
Orcs: First Blood by Stan Nichols

Recommended Viewing:
The Lord of the Rings

Recommended Gaming:
The Elder Scrolls series
Warcraft series
Orcs Must Die!


  1. This reminds me of how many times my bard got wiped out by orcs in FFXI online... woops, betraying my inner nerd ;-)

    Nice post, as usual. I tell you, JW, I am going to be exceedingly bored once your A-Z ends!!

    1. Let your inner nerd free, Randicop. Let it shine bright!

      You know, as much as work as it's been, I'm going to miss the challenge. It's been a lot of fun. It's going to feel weird going back to normal operations when it's over. But I'll get more work done, that's for sure!

  2. "It's not pointy ears or green skin that make fantasy stories what they are; it's the compelling spirit of a story too enchanting to take place in the real world."

    That's a great definition of fantasy, if I ever read one!
    Fantasy enthralls because it takes the imagination to the limits of possible reality and pushes it a step further. Its fascination comes from the untouchable, the undefinable and the wonderfully magical. It's what sets it apart from science-fiction too, though both deal with worlds that aren't this one.

    Attempt to stray from the typical mold? Go ahead J.W., taunt me, then I can blame you for my hacking into your computer to steal the goods and read them.

    1. Thanks, Vero! That's definitely the charm of fantasy. I love alternating between science fiction and fantasy, both as a reader and writer. They both tap into that inner escapist, sometimes for the same reason and sometimes for very different ones.

      Hopefully, you won't have to do any hacking for much longer to read at least some of the goods! For all the rest, my orcish horde is standing guard. Steal at your own risk!

  3. In Eragon there were similar Orc-like creatures called Urgals.

    I think one of the reasons orcs are so popular is that they're easy antagonists. The heroes don't have to feel any remorse for killing them because they're just mindless brutes.

    1. Absolutely! It's one of the reasons robots or orc-like aliens are the antagonists in science fiction settings, as well.

      Thanks for reading, Lauren!


Thanks for reading!