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Silmarillion Sunday: Orc Trouble

But of those unhappy ones who were ensnared by Melkor little is known of a certainty. For who of the living has descended into the pits of Utumno, or has explored the darkness of the counsels of Melkor? Yet this is held true by the wise of Eressea, that all those of the Quendi who came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes. For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Iluvatar; and naught that had life of its own, nor the semblance of life, could ever Melkor make since his rebellion in the Ainulindale before the Beginning: so say the wise. And deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathed the Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery. This it may be was the vilest deed of Melkor, and the most hateful to Iluvatar.

-- Chapter 3: Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor.

The origin and nature of the Orcs has always been a trouble spot. I have so many questions. Are Quendi genetics Lysenkoan, somehow? Or do Melkor's powers include gene-splicing? I tend to automatically sympathize with genetically engineered battle races (or battle cyborgs) and their struggles; I always want to impose some kind of Christmas Carol ending on them where they take the long hard road to self-determination. So it's disappointing to me that we see so little of the Orcs from the inside. We know from The Hobbit that they have legends and their own names for the swords Gandalf and Thorin carried, and I think there are a couple of brief conversations between Orcs in LotR where they complain about their bosses and make vague plans to go raiding after all this is over. The thing is, it doesn't seem like you can have the cognitive capacity to maintain legendary traditions and complain about your boss without also having the capacity to be less than 100% Pure Evil. Or at least it's something that requires further explanation.

Tolkien worried about this, too. According to his own beliefs, if the Orcs were "ruined" Quendi, they ought to have free will, but if they had free will, then it must be possible for them to be saved (however that works out in pre-Christian Middle Earth), which meant that treating them as Always Chaotic Evil cannon-fodder was a mistake. He talks about his qualms in one or two of his letters, but never got around to doing anything about it. Well, it's difficult, and ACE cannon-fodder is useful for certain kinds of plots, and it's a darker place than he necessarily wanted to go to. I understand that and maybe it's just as well.

At the same time, I really like the "realistic" levels of ignorance in LotR and the fact that no one really knows what the deal is with the Orcs -- but even a brief exchange or two about this problem would have been welcome; it's not like anyone's going to mind another 500 words in the middle of all that. Here there seems to be some room for interpretation or contradiction: we're told only what "the wise" have guessed, no first-hand account of Orc origins being available to the chronicler. So a lot of things could be true.

I don't feel the same qualms about the Balrogs, for some reason. I'm happy to take for granted that they're elemental spirits who tell no tales and sing no songs (maybe because we haven't seen them sing any songs -- yet!) and anyway, they seem to have chosen the form that suits them rather than having it imposed on them by nameless experiements. Dragons, too, I'm happy to just assume are largely inclined to be assholes by the standards of non-dragonkind. The Orcs are troubling, though, and this origin story makes them more so.

Reading is slow, but less slow than last week. The next couple of chapters look short, so we'll see.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
ramasi
Feb. 5th, 2015 09:22 pm (UTC)
I once built this whole LORT conspiracy theory, and one part of it was that "Orcs" is just what people call elves fighting on the other side.

Anyway, I remember I was really exited when I first heard Tolkien himself wasn't satisfied with what he'd done with the orcs. It's a pity this never went anywhere. Balrogs and dragons have this sense of primordial evil to them, whereas the orcs are just... people, who need to eat normally and complain about their boss...
evelyn_b
Feb. 6th, 2015 09:42 pm (UTC)
"Orcs" is just what people call elves fighting on the other side.

Tolkien wouldn't want me to commit the fallacy of allegory, but that does seem to be one of the Lessons of the Great War. :(

It seems like Tolkien painted himself into a corner with the Orcs that he couldn't get out of without taking the story in directions he didn't particularly want to go, which is understandable. It is a pity. A handful of sympathetic or complicating Orc moments would have gone a long way. I guess that's what fanfiction is for.

Edited at 2015-02-06 09:43 pm (UTC)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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