The Unnatural History of Tolkien's Orcs

Author: tyellas

Nominator: The Lauderdale

2011 Award Category: Non-Fiction: General

Story Type: Non-Fiction  ✧  Length: N/A (Non-Fiction or Poetry)

Rating: Teen  ✧  Reason for Rating: Disturbing Imagery/Themes

Summary: This essay is a double-barrelled look at Tolkien's remarkable creation, the fantasy race of orcs, examining them on two levels; what Tolkien's orcs have meant to the genre of fantasy writing, and what Tolkien intended his orcs to be - including the answers about the orcs' facts of life.

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Reviewed by: The Lauderdale  ✧  Score: 10

Outside of his own writings, this essay is first on my list of go-to references for Tolkien’s Orcs. Factual matters of diet, reproduction, physiognomy and so forth are covered, along with Tolkien’s shifting theories of their origins (were they derived from Elves, Men, beasts, or fallen Maiar?) and the pesky matter of their souls. Are Orcs purely evil? Or can they be redeemed? Putting one foot outside of Tolkien’s personal cosmology, Tyellas also examines Orcs in the larger context of their older fantasy antecedents (George MacDonald’s goblins and the assorted nasties of European folklore) and the works of Tolkien’s successors. [The Unnatural History of Tolkien’s Orcs] has critically shaped my own view of Orcs: I see them as a kind of modern folklore that other people, in commercial as well as fannish venues, continue to revisit and remake. This view is supported both by Tyellas’ observations of the larger fantasy genre and by her Appendix, [Other Orcs in Modern Fantasy], which surveys their appearance in role playing games and in non-Tolkien writing. I particularly love the inclusion of [Orcs By Any Other Name], which provides examples of clear Orc parallels such as Christopher Paolini’s Urgalls and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Svart Alfar. For my money, Tyellas delivers her biggest mind-blower early on, when she demonstrates the highly innovative nature of Tolkien's creation in these [particular monsters], for whom there is no exact equivalent in earlier myth or folklore. [“It is disturbing to think that there was a gap in imagination and myth for what the orcs represent, but their popularity shows that this has indeed been the case.”] In her close examination of Orcs and their significance, Tyellas’ essay is a fine contribution to Tolkien studies, and a work of lasting usefulness in the study of Orcs.

Reviewed by: Lyra  ✧  Score: 10

This astute essay on Tolkien's Orcs is a great piece of research, and a wonderful resource when it comes to the "daily life" of Orcs. Tyellas' efforts in collecting all information available about what Orcs eat and drink, how they reproduce, what they do when amongst themselves and so on are good work - as usual with Tolkien's writings, there is a lot of information, often contradictory, and it's just never all in one place. But (as other reviewers have mentioned before me) the greatest eye-opener was Tyellas' observation that nothing like the Orcs had existed before Tolkien dreamed them up (she compares them to various villain-minion figures in folklore to illustrate that point). Although the word "orc" itself already appears in Anglo-Saxon sources, the exact concept was previously unknown - but apparently necessary, as the great number of Orc-copies in later fantasy shows. A list of such creatures is appended to the essay and again neatly illustrates Tyellas' point. I had never thought about that before - to be honest, I've never given all that much thought to the internal or external history of Orcs - but it is absolutely true. Beyond making interesting and useful points, this essay is also written in a delightful style - at once serious and amusing. A prime example for the validity and high quality of fannish research and analysis!

Reviewed by: Erulisse  ✧  Score: 7

Although Orcs have a strong presence in Tolkien's writings and storylines, it is not often that they are analyzed in depth. Tyellas, here, has gone into the writings of Tolkien to plumb the depths of the history of the orcs. From the earliest beginnings with Morgoth corrupting the elves to make the orcs, to the final writing of his where orc cults sprang up in post-Ring War Gondor, the orcs are the omnipresent evil facing each character in Middle Earth. Tyellas has done all of us a favor here, going into depth in Tolkien's writings and letters to make a firm determination of what Tolkien intended for his penultimate and ever present villains. That he succeeded in making a race that is recognized as a force for evil past his own works is evident in the simple recognition of the term "orc" throughout literature and common culture today. His creation of orcs may be the most long-living contribution that Tolkien made to modern literature. A very interesting walk through a land of black evil.

Reviewed by: Raksha the Demon  ✧  Score: 4

An outstanding, comprehensive article about Orcs in Tolkien's works and essays/letters. Tyellas covers the nature of the orcs, their place among the creatures and peoples of Tolkien's worlds, Tolkien's own thoughts about them, and their usefulness as antagonists to heroes and hobbits. Very well done; an engrossing read even for someone who is not particularly enamored of Orcs.

Reviewed by: Dreamflower  ✧  Score: 4

A very fascinating overview of the origins and the place of Orcs within Tolkien's work. I had not before realized that there was no parallel to orcs in earlier folklore! I was impressed at how many facts about Orcs do appear in canon! I only wish that my one burning question about Orcs as to how their blood became black had been answered; but sadly JRRT must never have addressed this issue!

Reviewed by: Adonnen Estenniel  ✧  Score: 3

A fascinating and comprehensive look at Tolkien's less beautiful creatures. I love the depth of knowledge the author has, and the way it's put is simple to understand yet still informative. I've found it to be very useful in my own writing, though the essay reads well for recreational purposes rather than research. A valuable contribution to fandom.

Reviewed by: grey_gazania  ✧  Score: 3

This essay is a very thought-provoking, thorough, and in-depth analysis of orcs and their history, both within the context of Tolkien's world and within the broader fantasy tradition. Well done, Tyellas!