Posted Sat, Dec 07, 2013 by gunky
Another fantasy race that owes much of its existence to Professor Tolkien, the Orc has in recent times undergone a massive public relations shift.
Tolkien's Orcs were the invention of Morgoth, the most powerful of the Ainur. He made them in mockery of the elves of Illuvatar, either through vile sorcery applied to various muds and slimes from the bowels of Arda, or by corrupting actual Elves and twisting them into Orcs, depending on who is telling the story. Tolkien's orcs have broad bodies shorter than a man, bowed legs, long arms, and crooked backs, making them walked stooped like an ape. They have flat Goblin-y faces with wide, fanged mouths and slanted eyes, and skin described as "sallow" or "black." Not green - that came later.
Essentially, Tolkien's Orcs and Goblins (which are the same creature - the only difference is size) were created as cannon fodder for the great evil overlord villains of the stories. They were Sauron's footsoldiers and lackeys. The Uruk-hai created by Saruman were evidence of his mad attempts to play God, and served as his stormtroopers. They were irredeemably wicked - not necessarily evil by nature, but so thoroughly subservient to the forces of darkness that they were pretty much rotten to the core. They were brutes, thugs and terrorists, soulless killers bent on destruction and carnage. They used the Black Speech of Mordor, a harsh and guttural language which has seemingly become the template for Orcish (or Orkish) in most other settings, but were clever enough to also be fluent in Westron.
These orcs can still be found in the Lord of the Rings Online - mostly as hostile mobs, but also as playable monster characters for PvMP in the Ettenmoors. But most other games featuring Orcs have taken a very different approach to the race, attempting to add depth and pathos to a race that was created to be un-dimensional and anti-sympathetic.
The first green-skinned Orcs came around much later, with Dungeons & Dragons, in the 1970's and 80's. These green-skinned barbaric tribals are the ones most often adapted in other works. D&D Orcs are Chaotic Evil, which is more or less in keeping with Tolkien's orcs, but these Orcs are not dominated by a great godlike power - they're just a bunch of one-hit-die barbarian jerks doing whatever evil things they feel like doing because that's how CE rolls.
D&D also carried on Tokien's idea of orc-human hybrids. The Half-orcs of Tolkien's world are sleazy characters who are universally up to no good whenever they are encountered, but except for sallow skin, slanty eyes and an ill-favored cast to their faces, they pass as regular humans. D&D Half-orcs are much more orc-y in appearance and stick out like sore thumbs among human society. Some of them try to fit in with the "good guys" and live in human cities. Others embrace their darker halves and head to the barbarian tribes to become warriors.
This tribal barbarian theme has been sort of split into two different paths: that of the battle-crazy 'zerker race, and that of the proud and martial tribal.
The battle-crazy 'zerker is what one finds in settings like the Warhammer universe. It's too bad Warhammer Online didn't do better than it did, because Warhammer Orks are hilarious. These Orks are blindly hyper-aggressive, bristling with spikes and axes and skullz on everything. In the 40k universe, they can make functional weapons by essentially hammering any parts together to make something that looks like a weapon. If it looks like dakka, it is dakka, and more dakka is always better. These orcs are not so much "evil" as they are comically aggressive and brutish. They are dumb as a bag of hammers, but who needs brains when you have MOAR DAKKA!
The noble savage is slightly more popular in MMOs, in large part because of the Warcraft universe. Warcraft Orcs are basically the fantasy greenskin version of Klingons - a strong, proud warrior race ruled by honour and a deep, abiding love of warfare and yelling dialogue with a Muppet-like growl. They have a "savage," barbaric culture but with a deeper, spiritual side keeping their heightened aggression somewhat in check.This new type of Orc often stands taller than Humans, not just in the Warcraft universe but elsewhere as well. Orc society in these cases is often patriarchal and absurdly masculine. Physical prowess is valued more than intelligence, women are chattel, and everyone lifts. These Orcs are warlike and testosterone-fueled, but not really evil. They live in harsh conditions, and have harsh rules and unforgiving codes that may seem brutal to outsiders, but they are also capable of great deeds of heroism and goodness, the same as the other races.
This new direction more or less mirrors our current views of real-world tribal cultures. Western culture has long regarded itself as "advanced" and "proper," and the hunter-gatherers they encountered in remote places were seen as "backwards" because they didn't have guns and cathedrals and galleons, or as "immoral" because they didn't wear a lot of clothing. We now view these ancient cultures in a different context - they live in closer harmony with nature without guns, stone buildings and sea-faring vessels. Modesty is impractical when it's always oven-hot and humid as a steam shower. We now accept that these cultures are different from but not lesser than our own.
This appears also to be the case with Orcs. Orc "culture" is an amalgamation of many different aspects of real-world tribal and other cultures. Though they are certainly warlike and love a good fight, they are no longer strictly seen as "evil" by forward-thinking people - though they often suffer from a bad reputation because of the propaganda of the people they have fought against in the past, who play up their savagery and malice.
The Orcs of the Elder Scrolls universe are a good example - they fought for independence in the past, and the humans and elves they fought against spread tales of their ferocity and bloodlust and savagery. Nevermind that a lot of their culture is centered around crafting high-quality armour, and the worship of the same basic set of gods as everyone else.
These gentle, misunderstood souls stand at odds with the original Orcs. There was no cultural misinterpretation of Tolkien's orcs - they were clearly wicked, savage beings with no regard for life. It wasn't a spiritual-but-martial tough-guy culture that inspired them to attempt to commit genocide against the Rohirrim at Helm's Deep - it was the will of their evil overlord, Saruman, and of his evil master, Sauron. They weren't staging a righteous rebellion, they were out for blood and murder, for the death of every last man, woman and child in Middle-Earth. They didn't live in druidic harmony with their environment - they had more of a slash-and-burn approach to nature. There is no misinterpretation here. The motivations of Tolkien's Orcs are stated fairly explicitly.
Warcraft Orcs have as much in common with Tolkien's Elves as they do with his Orcs. Maybe even more. Now that the Orcs of Azeroth are no longer being controlled by a powerful demon, they're dirt-worshippers with a strict code of honour. Tolkien's Orcs didn't give a hot damn about honor, and when their master fell, so did they. WoW Orcs are Orcs in name only.
Don't get me wrong - I actually like the more modern take. The Orc is the raging berserker-beast inside all of us, but having those feelings doesn't make us monsters. In a way, the story of an Orc is the story of an underdog - in order to make something of himself, the Orc has to overcome a severely tarnished image, the hatred and prejudices of his peers and his own base, violent instincts. Behaving in any way other than as a raging bloodthirsty goon risks earning the Orc the scorn of his peers - to behave in a thoughtful, civilized manner is considered an act of outrageous non-conformity. Orc stories have a kind of inverse depth that is unique to their race. Quite frankly, there are lots of times when I find Orcs to be the only race I can really relate to.
And it's not just because we look alike. Shut up.