Fantasy author NK Jemisin has commented that “Orcs are fruit of the poison vine that is human fear of ‘the Other’.” Indeed, we would have every reason to fear Tolkien’s Orcs and their difference. Every way in which they are presented, including the etymology of their species name, the fear and horror they evoke, even the food that they consume, denotes their alterity. Their skin colour, their language, and their behaviour all encourage a reading that is rooted in racialism and essentialism; embedded stereotypes invite a conclusion that this species possesses a definable set of attributes essential to its identity, and that these attributes are both monstrous and racially signposted.

Although Tolkien struggled in later life with the origins of the Orcs, and the question of whether he could reconcile his beliefs with the concept of an irredeemable species, he does not seem to have given the same consideration to their depiction as racial stereotypes. Although it could be argued (and has been) that racial difference does not imply evil to Tolkien, it is useful to consider the ways in which the Orcs emerge from social and cultural anxieties of the twentieth century.

This paper examines the ways in which the Orcs are presented as an amorphous mass on whom it is accepted (and expected) to inflict genocide, exploring whether there is anything redeemable or indicative of individuality about this species, or whether, as China Miéville declares, “to be an Orc is to be definitionally a shit.”



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