When coming up with my novel Ghets I wanted to create an everything and the kitchen sink high fantasy world. A world crammed with all the weird concepts I had come up with over the years, as well as my own spin on fantasy tropes like stolen Princesses, and tall, elegant elves. Some tropes I wanted to explore and others I wanted to subvert. For orcs, like my lead Reez, I wanted to do both.
Orcs are a fantasy mainstay, and like most fantasy mainstays they first came to prominence in Tolkien. In Tolkien’s Middle Earth orcs are squat, humanoid brutes obsessed with fighting and eating the flesh of their enemies (and sometimes that of their allies). Since this inception they have grown and spread with the fantasy genre becoming the stock minions of hundreds of dark lords. And have achieved a pop culture relevance equal to that of stormtroops and big head gray aliens as the baddies you except to see fall by the dozens in video games and movies.
Orcs have largely remained the same since the Lord of the Rings. They’re often violent cannibals, swinging crude axes and clubs, dressed in pointy armor or covered in furs and bone necklaces. Like all villains they speak to us on a subconscious level. Their origins found in mythological creatures like trolls, ghouls and goblins. They are the manifestation of the ‘other’. The wicked, warrior tribe that lives over the hill or across the sea. They are backwards but conquer and kill everything they come across.
Orcs are something of melting pot of every fear of barbarians that western Europe has had since the fall of the Roman empire. They swing axes and have fur lined helms like Vikings. They fight in ‘hordes’ like the Mongolians. They wear war paint like Celts or Native Americans. Most problematic of all, they are often called ‘savages’. And have traits and inhuman practices that mirror accusations European conquers levied against locals in the Americas, and Africa, like low intelligence but brutish strength, and the eating of human flesh.
Orcs are also, often, exclusively male. This usually happens because they don’t get much character development, merely being the big bad invading armies in vaguely medieval worlds where the majority of warriors aren’t women either (I know that’s dumb, in Ghets women fight alongside men and nobody cares). But some universes do take the whole ‘orcs are all dudes’ thing to a ridiculous extreme.
In Tolkien Orcs are pulled from the earth using vile magic so theoretically the orcs are all gender neutral? Though they do call each other ‘boys’ and use male pronouns. The same thing occurs in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40K universes. In 40K Orcs are like a type of fungus and grow and spread by sprouting? (look I wish I was kidding). Usually this lack of women goes hand and hand with another problem with orcs. Nobody writing their fiction considers: what do orcs do when they aren’t fighting?
The most egregious example of this is the Shadow of Mordor series. Shadow of Mordor is a video game series loosely based on the works of Tolkien. In it you play as Ranger who is leading a resistance in Mordor against Sauron. The games are all about you hanging out with the orcs, either stalking, battling, or subjecting them. Orc society in the game is cartoonish, all they do is hunt, drink, kill each other, and enslave things.
In Shadow of War, the second game in the series, you come across different orc locations like villages, mines and fortress, but there’s no difference in what’s going on in each location. They’re all just backdrops to stab more orcs. The orcs have rival tribes, but you don’t know what they’re fighting over, there’s no real resources or territory and no one explains why one orc would be part of one tribe or another since they aren’t born into them. In fact, no one explains where they keep on getting more orcs, since you murder hundreds of them, like hundreds of hundreds them. If the game was Lord of the Rings cannon, then there wouldn’t be a need for the Fellowship. By the end of Shadow of War Mordor would be vacant.
And yet, even with none of these questions answered I liked the orcs of Shadow of Mordor series. I liked all the orcs I mentioned. Tolkien’s and Games Workshop’s too. Orcs are fun, often because of how thinly drawn they are. They’re all the things we like about Vikings and barbarians, the fighting, drinking and looting, without any real-world consequences. They’re so dumb, greedy and violent that they become comical. Bad guys that are destined to lose, in facet deserve what’s coming to them and often don’t seem to mind the outcome.
But there can be more to orcs, ways to take what we like about them and make them richer, more complex characters. Some franchises and writers have already done that, and I will discuss how and how I’ve designed my own orcs in next week’s post: ‘Why an orc?’