The Encyclopedia of Arda - an interactive guide to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien
Dates
Emerged in ancient Elder Days, while Melkor still ruled from Utumno; survived into the Fourth Age1
Location
Found across Middle-earth, especially in lands under the power of Melkor or Sauron
Origins
Obscure, but apparently bred from Elves or Men2
Divisions
Numerous, but notably included the larger Uruk-hai and lesser forms known as Snaga
Cultures
Numerous, but notably Mordor-orcs, Isengarders and Northerners
Meaning
Derives from Old English, 'demons' (but see The Etymology of 'Orc' in the main entry)
Other names

Indexes:

About this entry:

  • Updated 24 March 2002
  • Updates planned: 88

Orcs

Warring servants of the Dark Lords

Little is known for certain of the beginnings of the Orcs, the footsoldiers of the Enemy. It is said that they were in origin corrupted Elves captured by Melkor before the beginning of the First Age. In appearance, Orcs were squat, swarthy creatures. Most of them preferred the darkness, being blinded by the light of the Sun, but the kinds bred later in the Third Age such as the Uruk-hai could endure the daylight.


The Etymology of ‘Orc’

'...the word is as far as I am concerned actually derived from Old English orc 'demon', but only because of its phonetic suitability...'
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien No 144, dated 1953

The word orc could be called the Tom Bombadil of Tolkien's etymology; it occurs in different variants in almost all the languages of Middle-earth, but we have almost no details of how they interconnect. The variety of 'orc'-words is illustrated by Tolkien himself:

'Orc is the form of the name that other races had for this foul people as it was in the language of Rohan. In Sindarin it was orch. Related, no doubt, was the word uruk in the Black Speech...'
The Lord of the Rings
Appendix F I The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age

So it is clear that these words are all related (and orc is also, apparently, used freely by speakers of the Common Tongue). What is harder to discover, though, is how these words are all related to one another. Why does the rural hobbit-dialect use essentially the same word for these creatures as in the courts of Minas Tirith or Caras Galadhon? When it comes to the word's origins, there are three possible theories.

Theory 1: Ancient Mannish Tongues

The connection of orc to Old English strongly suggests a Mannish origin. Other old words of this kind, like mathom and smial, have their origins in the ancient tongues of the Northmen (hence the shared understanding between the Hobbits and Rohirrim, whose ancestors had once lived in the same northern regions). This language can be traced back to the ancestors of the Edain in the First Age, from whose language also came the Adûnaic tongue of Númenor and ultimately the Common Speech of Middle-earth.

This puts the first pieces of the puzzle into place. If the word orc is shared by the language of the Rohirrim, the dialect of the Hobbits and the Westron tongue, it must date back at least to these ancient ancestors of Men. However, orc surely cannot have been invented by these Mannish-speakers. They came late onto a linguistic scene in which Sindarin was already well established. At the time the Elves encountered Men, they had been warring with the Orcs for centuries - it is not plausible that they would have abandoned their own word for their foe and replaced it with one from a coarse alien tongue. The only realistic alternative is that the earliest Men did not invent the word orc for themselves, but adapted it from Elvish orch, and then passed it down to their descendants. This accounts for Tolkien's qualification '..but only because of its phonetic suitability...' quoted above.

Theory 2: Orkish Dialects

An apparently more practical theory might be that the Orcs invented their own name for themselves, and the other races (especially the Elves) adopted this for their own use. Unfortunately, this doesn't fit with the established facts:

'It is said that [the Orcs] had no language of their own, but took what they could of other tongues and perverted it to their own liking...'
The Lord of the Rings
Appendix F I The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age

This seems to suggest that the Orcs didn't originally have a name for their own kind, but borrowed it from some other source. This is a strange conclusion to be sure, but it seems the only one discernable from the text. We would have to presume that this acquired name was then incorporated into Sauron's Black Speech when it was created long after. If the Orcs didn't invent their own word uruk, then, it must have come from some other source.

Theory 3: Elvish

The only remaining plausible theory is that it was the Elves who invented the word, and passed it on to the other races, including the Orcs themselves. This is borne out by The Etymologies (in volume 5 of The History of Middle-earth), where we find a reference to an Elvish root órok, from which the various Elvish words for 'Goblin' derive. This seems to be the oldest origin of the word, from which all the others developed.

Notes

1

After the Fall of Barad-dûr, the menace of the Orcs was reduced almost completely, but the Orcs themselves did not vanish. After the final Fall of Sauron, the will driving the Orcs was removed, and many slew themselves, but others of the survivors '...fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places...' (The Return of the King VI 4, The Field of Cormallen). From the little information we have, this seems to summarise the Orcs in the Fourth Age, surviving in small numbers, but presenting no real threat without the driving will of the Dark Lord. Various passages in The Hobbit even speak of Orcs (or 'goblins') in the present tense, hinting that they may have survived to modern times.

2

The question of the origin of the Orcs was never completely settled. In the earliest versions of the stories, they were simply created by Melkor, but as Tolkien's conception of the first Dark Lord evolved, it became clear that he would not have the power to create rational beings of his own. The Silmarillion strongly implies - without being absolutely explicit - that the first Orcs were somehow created from captured Elves in ancient times. Later writings (especially those titled Myths Transformed in volume 10 of The History of Middle-earth) suggest that Orcs had their origins in Men. The text of the published Silmarillion, however, includes accounts of Orcs that preceded the awakening of the first Men, so that this latter explanation cannot hold for all Orcs. It was apparently Tolkien's intention to address this disparity, but as the canonical text stands, at least some of the first Orcs must necessarily have come from Elves.

See also...

Agarwaen, Aghan, Alders, Algund, Amon Rûdh, Anach, Angband, Angmar, Ants, Apes, Aragorn Elessar, Aragost, Arahad I, Arahad II, Arassuil, [See the full list...]

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