Thursday, July 23, 2009

Orcs as Soldiers

But the victory of the Elves was dear-bought. For those of Ossiriand were light-armed, and no match for the Orcs, who were shod with iron and iron-shielded and bore great spears with broad blades...
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

Orcs, shod with iron and iron-shielded.

And the Eagles of the Mountains went far and wide, and they saw many things: the gathering of wolves and the mustering of Orcs; and the Nine Riders going hither and thither in the lands; and they heard news of the escape of Gollum.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Orcs muster.

And as they rode rumour came of war in the North. Lone men, riding wild, brought word of foes assailing their east-borders, of orc-hosts marching in the Wold of Rohan.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

And they march.

In Tolkien's corpus, orcs are soldiers, unnatural weapons of war, twisted by Melkor from Elves. Their nature is reflected in the language Tolkien chooses to describe their actions. Orcs muster and march. They invade and assault. They appear shod with iron and iron-shielded, bearing great spears with broad blades. And they gather not in tribes or clans but in companies, in bands, and in hosts. They are not savages, primitives, barbarians. They are soldiers.

There are "savages" in The Lord of the Rings -- "the wild men" -- but they are very unlike the orcs.

So great a power and royalty was revealed in Aragorn, as he stood there alone above the ruined gates before the host of his enemies, that many of the wild men paused, and looked back over their shoulders to the valley, and some looked up doubtfully at the sky. But the Orcs laughed with loud voices; and a hail of darts and arrows whistled over the wall, as Aragorn leaped down.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers
Even in speech orcs are presented differently from "wild men." When Ghân-buri-Ghân, headman of the wild men speaks in The Return of the King, he does so haltingly, using nouns without determiners and verbs without inflection, and his speech often ellipses words that would normally be included in actual speech. His language is patterned to suggest barbarism. Orcs, in contrast, speak with the usual complement of determiners and verbal morphemes. The speech of orcs is different from the speech of hobbits and "civilized" men in the tales, certainly -- but it is represented with dialect forms, not with a caricature of "broken English."

Given Tolkien's academic specialty, it's hard to imagine any of this is accidental. Orcs are associated with war and industry -- mining, black smoke, and iron. They are not native savages living in tribes in the wilderness of Middle Earth.

Orcs in Dungeons and Dragons
In Dungeons and Dragons, the barbarian or savage orc predominates. So much so that it is often simply taken for granted. Do evil wizards use orcs as soldiers and guards? Sure. But orcs live in tribes in D&D (a fact established as early as OD&D's Monsters and Treasure and repeated throughout the AD&D line). That isn't to say that there are no traces of Tolkien's orcs in the early D&D books -- orc mercenaries remain on hireling lists, and even into 2nd edition, orcs remain Lawful Evil. But orcs live in tribes, and are natural beings, not unnatural creations of evil. And by 3rd edition (at the latest), the barbarian orc is firmly entrenched, a fact reflected in their shift to Chaotic Evil alignment and association with the Barbarian class. Orcs (and other humanoids) in D&D in general are presented as natural savages, not the unnatural footsoldiers of a dark god.

...and other roleplaying games
What about other fantasy RPGs? Off the top of my head, I know that orcs follow the savage/barbarian/primitive model in The Fantasy Trip (where the default assumption is that they're descendants of neanderthal-like peoples!). Dragon Warriors, in contrast, clearly positions orcs as the archetypal "henchthings of evil." In The Burning Wheel, orcs also hew somewhat closer to Tolkien, an unsurprising fact given that similar things can be said of the game's elves and dwarves. Warhammer puts a characteristic twist on them, giving us armies of supernaturally tough hooligans. Other games (such as, I believe, Runequest) do away with orcs completely, replacing them with another race of humanoid enemies.

I'm fond of the orc that marches, the orc that is a soldier, the orc that counts himself a member of a company, not a tribe. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with departing from Tolkien's take on orcs, of course, but I think it provides an interesting alternative to the dominance of the barbarian orc. I like to see proactive orcs invading and capturing territory as soldiers, raiding dungeons for weapons to use in their master's war against mankind, planning raids rather than berserking, and stealing silently under cover of darkness into position to strike at the forces of good.

Now the Orcs that multiplied in the darkness of the earth grew strong and fell, and their dark lord filled them with a lust of rain and death; and they issued from Angband's gates under the clouds that Morgoth sent forth, and passed silently into the highlands of the north.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion

How about you?


  1. Great post. I much prefer the soldier orc you describe to the rather boring "savage monster which likes to hit things".

    AD&D 2e's orcs were Lawful Evil, and came closest to Tolkien's orcs out of all the varieties in the different editions.

  2. Thanks. I'll have to pull out my 2e books and take a look at those.

  3. I concur.

    My Abbekqorru are a literal combination of Orks and Bugbears, and are a starfaring race hired as mercenaries by the terrestrial Humanoids to lead their armies against the grounded Human forces too busy squabbling amongst themselves to reach for the stars.

  4. This is an excellent observation. Orcs as storm troopers instead of barbarians, creatures of the army instead of the horde. Ordered, regulated orcs become more of a threat to PCs than disorganized thugs.

  5. Great post. It’s not something I usually retain from the books, but now that you mention it, Tolkien does do a great job of portraying the orcish personality & tendencies in this direction.

    As a point of reference, many players use Hobgoblins in this capacity, both in old-school and in newer-school games. In the game I’m currently running I do have barbaric orcs and disciplined soldierly Hobgobs, and the PCs definitely have more hate/enjoyment fighting the Hobs. Of course, this might also have something to do with them nearly killing the whole party at one point when they were lower level…

    If I were going to use Orcs in the Tolkien manner, I’d want to give Hobgobs a new shtick.

  6. Timeshadows, that's an interesting take. I think that's one of the things I enjoy most about worldbuilding within a D&D / FRP fantasy milieu -- the chance to reinterpret and/or combine monsters to fit a setting. I've been doing just a little of that so far with The Rainy City, but I did a lot of it in my last D&D campaign. Fun stuff.

    E.G. Palmer: That's also very true. Disciplined orcs that make use of classic military tactics and formations could be a hell of a thing to deal with, especially if the players have gotten used to the D&D barbaric orc.

    Shimrod, that's also a good point. I'd lean toward just dropping hobgoblins entirely with these orcs in play, though that might just be because I tend to want to ditch the proliferation of goblinoids anyway. I tend to like goblins and soldier orcs, and want everything else just count as belonging to one of those groupings. That may just be me, though.

  7. I've always made orcs more of a people than military, but I totally see what Tolkien was going for. It could also be noted that Isengard is an industrial complex situated in the middle of a fantasy realm. I think it sort of shows the pitfalls of an industrial society and the constantly waring orcs are a good example. Whether industrialization is evil or not, is a whole other debate, but I think Tolkien had an opinion.

  8. There's plenty of evidence in the texts to support that interpretation, certainly. It's something I don't think I've ever seen taken to its logical conclusions in an RPG setting, interestingly. Orcs in D&D tend to be barbaric -- entirely non-industrial. A more military and also more industrialized orc would be another possible angle for an RPG to take.