Orcs have become a complex subject in the dialogue about fantasy, both critical and fictional. There are numerous authors who have put together stories sparked by the notion that the orcs are the underdog heroes, despised as they are by the hypocritical elves, dwarves, and men. Within an outlook that “good” is meaningless and “evil” is mere propaganda for the other side, the orcs can become protagonists in a crapsack world chockfull of postmodern relativism, ugliness everywhere, and plenty of blood and guts.
Then there are those who consider the orcs, etc, as evidence of Tolkien’s racism. I’ll get to that. Finally, there are those, like me, who think the orcs pretty much act like human beings in their pettiness, enjoyment of cruelty, othering (they do it, too), and relish for violence, but that doesn’t make them heroes. It does, however, make me wonder about their lives away from war.
So all this stuff was in mind as I read this pair of chapters. I thought I’d look for, oh, let’s call them cultural details.
In chapter two we first encounter orcs and goblins up close, initially through a flashback in Pippin's point of view. The first orcs we are introduced to aren’t particularly battle-minded—until Boromir forces them to it.
Thinking back, Pippin reflects on how he and Merry:
. . . had run a long way shouting — he could not remember how far or how long; and then suddenly they had crashed right into a group of orcs: they were standing listening, and they did not appear to see Merry and Pippin until they were almost in their arms. Then they yelled and dozens of other goblins had sprung out of the trees. Merry and he had drawn their swords, but the orcs did not wish to fight, and they had tried only to lay hold of them, even when Merry had cut off several of their arms and hands. Good old Merry!
Then Boromir had come leaping through the trees. He had made them fight. He slew many of them and the rest fled . . .
The second speech we hear is one of them threatening Pippin, offering to ‘tickle’ him with a knife blade. This is an angry and threatening enemy who seems to relish the idea of torture, which he calls “play,” but still I wonder when he learned the concept of tickling as well as play.
We then get an argument, in which it becomes clear that there are two parties loyal to their respective masters, each of whom have orders that they intend to obey.
Then a third speaks up, saying, “Not our orders! We have come all the way from the Mines to kill, and [italics mine]avenge our folk. I wish to kill, and then go back up North.”
Following comes another interesting bit of dialogue: “Maybe, maybe! Then you’ll fly off with our prisoners, and get all the pay and praise in Lugburz, and leave us to foot it as best we can through the Horse-country. No, we must stick together. These lands are dangerous: full of foul rebels and brigands.”
Ugluk says that they have to stick together, then he brags that they are the fighting Uruk-Hai. He is concerned about “his lads” getting worn out—and Grishnakh returns because “There are some stout fellows that are too good to lose.” And finally, they carry at least one first-aid kit, judging by Ugluk’s tending Merry.
So underneath the threat and the ugliness, the dirty bandages, and so forth, we can see evidence of unit cohesion, obedience to orders, a wish to avenge their people, and at some point in their lives, a sense of play.
I remember a long talk on a panel during which an author, in slamming LOTR, pointed out that Aragorn, our noble hero, Legolas, the beauty-loving elf, and the honorable Gimli don’t seem to have any problem with abandoning the enemy dead.
Another person on that panel (which had been put together for the purpose of talking about why LOTR is bad) did not actually rant, but said more mildly, “Look, I totally respect your loving that book, and I know it’s got a lot of great qualities, but it also others people like me—persons of color—and I can’t get past that, even in a fantasy full of magic and dragons and elves.”
"Yes!" proclaimed the first panelist. "One of the many signs of othering is disrespecting the enemy dead." And pointed out later in the last volume an orc claims that ‘the big warrior’ (Sam)’s leaving the apparently dead Frodo lying in Shelob’s lair is a “typical elvish trick.”
Nobody countered it, but I remember wondering as I walked out of the panel if what the orc probably meant that the elves disdained a perfectly good meal, as I could not remember an instance in LOTR in which orcs and their allies respectfully buried anybody, ally or enemy. But there were plenty of references to relishing man-meat.
Anyway, it does appear that the orcs have some social and cultural rules. They are also thinking beings, choosing to follow orders to kill, avenge, and invade.
The other question is a tougher one, the language that equates dark with bad (“swarthy,” “swart,” “black,” “dark”) as opposed to those elves having as one of their beauteous qualities their pale, pale skin and hair.
It’s been pointed out that not all white characters are good: Saruman isn’t (“dark eyes!” someone on the panel noted), Gollum is sometimes described as dark and other times pale, and then there are the Nazgul, who under their black cloaks are “pale kings.” Whereas Aragorn when he first appears is dark of hair and clothes.
In my reading so far, what I think is going on is a light and darkness comparison rather than racial—though the Haradrim and their dark skin are difficult to explain away, as are the sallow and slant-eyed goblins. But to Tolkien light was so very important, going back to the light of the Two Trees, and one expression of evil is reviling that light, or wanting to possess or distort it.
Sauron certainly relishes darkness, what with only trying to buy (and steal) black horses, outfitting his minions in black (which takes a ton of dye work), and of course being a part of the breeding project to raise warriors who prefer to move in darkness, and who developed thick hides rather like armor, that seem by description to resemble elephant hides.
Anyway, my completely boring and wussy conclusion is that Tolkien was a product of his time, betraying certain unexamined assumptions, but what I do not believe is that he set out to write an allegory “proving” that all dark-skinned people are evil.
When I finished the chapter, I went hunting through the letters, and I found a passage when JRRT was writing to Christopher Tolkien during the last year of WW II, who apparently had been undergoing some problems with his military peers, JRRT writes: Urukhai is only a figure of speech. There are no genuine Uruks, that is folk made bad by the intention of their maker; and not many who are so corrupted as to be irredeemable (though I fear it must be admitted that there are human creatures that seem irredeemable short of a special miracle) and that there are probably abnormally many of such creatures in Deutschland and Nippon — but certainly these unhappy countries have no monopoly: I have met them, or thought so, in England's green and pleasant land).
Anyhow, I wondered what orc culture was like when they weren’t on the march to war. Did they marry? Were their children like any other kids until beaten into angry warriors? They definitely have a sense of humor, warped as it is, as is evident in this passage:
"Hullo, Pippin! Merry said. “So you've come on this little expedition, too? Where do we get bed-and-breakfast?"
"Now then!" said Ugluk. "None of that! Hold your tongues. No talk to one another. Any trouble will be reported at the other end, and He’ll know how to pay you. You will get bed and breakfast all right: more than you can stomach."
Did orc mothers wait anxiously for their boys to come home from the war?
Then, how much of their wills have been distorted by the magical influence of their supreme commanders, Saruman and Sauron? We’re going to see evidence of some kind of mass effect in book three.
Onward. We also have have in this chapter Pippin planning ahead, and watching for a chance to leave evidence. When he can, he cuts his bonds, then quickly loops the ropes so that they look convincing. This is not evidence of a stupid hobbit. After the Rohirrim attack, when Grishnakh turns up threatening them, it’s Pippin who does his best to deflect him.
And when Grishnakh is dead, it’s Pippin who was ready with his fake ropes, and after making sure they eat a bit of lembas: “Pippin was the first to come back to the present.” It’s he who cuts their bonds and takes the lead into Fangorn.
Oh yeah. At the end of the chapter, Eomer and his riders make a mound of their fallen, and they do burn the orc dead.
The next chapter is another of Tolkien’s wonderful mood and mode changes: we go from sweat, blood, fire, and sword into the beauty and mystery of Fangorn.
We meet the Ents. For me as a reader, it is somehow more wonderful that it is hobbits, and not men (or even elves) through whose eyes we first meet Treebeard and Quickbeam. I love the humor-veined awe that the Ents inspire in Pippin and Merry. We also encounter Entish magic, which—like the elven magic we have encountered so far—seems to be a natural part of their being.
Ho, hum, hoom, the Ents are on the march, after pages of wonderful, evocative description. Tension rises, after the Entish look at history and the world around them. As the next chapter returns to Gimli and company, that should do it for this round.