On Orcs

The Uruk-Hai

What name shall we give thee, o congregation of orcs? (Source)

What name shall we give thee, o congregation of orcs? (Source)

Have some pity on the poor orc. More beast than being, their aspirations seem quite low: fight, kill, eat man-flesh, repeat. Given their nature I am sure there are some lawyers and customer service operators about their ranks, but in general compared to the more multi-dimensional races of Middle earth, the orcs may seem quite simple and un-nuanced. Yet when (with no small reservation) we for a spell travel with a horde (or perhaps a gam? a route? a troop?) of orcs, we may realize some deeper musing upon the existence of orcs.

According to Tolkien’s lore, the droves of orcs first came about through the power of the Dark Lord Melkor, whom Sauron originally served. I refrain from the words “created” or “made” intentionally, because this aspect of orcish existence deeply concerned Tolkien. From his Catholic theological perspective, Tolkien knew that only through God could anything be created, and so even when certain beings (such as the dwarves) were fashioned by the wills of lesser powers, they nevertheless rested in the divine mind. If evil had generated evil being itself, then it smacked of gnosticism; yet, if not, then the orcish race should be redeemable and have the potential for good, a characteristic that never bubbles up in the pages of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien wrestled with this concern unsuccessfully, but ultimately derived one solution: the original orcs were elves (and therefore having previously been created) who were captured and tortured by the darkness, thereby losing their wills (and removing their status as rational beings) and becoming little more than brutish drones (though how that was passed down from generation to generation of orcs was left unanswered). It is an unsatisfactory answer, yet deep down inside we understand the essence of the orc: the insatiable desire for power and violence, the un-divertible current of evil.

In fact, the paradox of the intrusions of orcs arises from their masquerading unity. Though uruk-hai and goblin have slight variations to the orcish concept, in general the swarms of orcs are the same. Unlike the races of Elves, Dwarves, and Men, they are unified in physical presence and in service of one dark cause. Yet, though the free peoples of Middle earth can unite around one cause, the unity of the orcs is a sham: in their language, their leadership, and desires they embody disorder and chaos. Constant in-fighting is the norm; remorseless orcicide is the standard. The cackles of orcs seem to echo the famous words of life of Thomas Hobbes: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

So what meaning do the drifts of orcs have for us Lenten pilgrims? What do we gain by pausing for some length on the plight of the clamours of orcs? That creation is ultimately good; that diversity is not the opposite of unity. But perhaps most deeply, we hesitate on the wariness of losing our humanity, of willingly sacrificing so much as to become less than human. We need not be captured and tortured to fall prey to the corruption of our being. If we on occasion live like the orc, we may find ourselves one day to have become one.

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