Thursday, 3 May 2012

The unrepentant orcs


In The Lord of the Rings there are several points where there are fairly extensive transcriptions of orc conversation - for example when Merry and Pippin have been kidnapped by the gangs of Ugluk and Grishnackh, and in the tower of Cirth Ungol when Sam overhears Shagrat and Gorbag in discussion, and in Mordor when Frodo and Sam observe an argument between a 'sniffer' and a warrior.

From such conversation, Tom Shippey (in his brilliant essay Orcs, Wraiths, Wights: Tolkien's images of evil) infers that:

'...Orcs recognise the idea of goodness, appreciate humour, value loyalty, trust, group cohesion and the ideal of a higher cause then themselves, and condemn failings from these ideals in others'.


In other words, orcs have a moral system which is pretty much identical with that of men - which would not be surprising, since they were (probably) originally men that have been corrupted (mainly by Morgoth).

What is different about orcs is:

1. That they utterly fail to live up to their moral system.

2. Are free from any guilt about this failure.

3. And therefore do not ever repent their wrong-doings.


As well as utterly failing to abide by their own moral code, orcs pursue evil in that they try to destroy Good: they destroy virtue, ruin any beauty and lie whenever it is expedient.


Thus, orcs represent an extreme limit of human evil.

Orcs retain the inborn Natural Law (the orc moral system) - and are thus typically human.

Orcs are nonetheless dominated by the will to evil - they nearly always choose the evil option (exhibiting original sin) - and in this too they are within the bounds of human behaviour.

All that divides orcs from humans in a qualitative sense is the apparent impossibility of repentance among orcs.


Perhaps this was the focus of Morgoth's corruption of men into orcs?

Perhaps Morgoth strove not so much to make men more evil, since there have-been and are men just as evil as the worst orcs described by Tolkien; but rather to breed (selectively?) a kind of man that is - in practice, temperamentally, by virtue of his character - incapable of repentance.


That is quite a thought: the only thing dividing humans from orcs is the matter of repentance.

And it is this which makes the difference between the possibility of salvation from humans, and the apparent impossibility of salvation for orcs.


Perhaps even this would not be enough to damn all orcs if they were capable of love, or even of eliciting love - but there is no sign of it.

Indeed, it is presumably the inability of orcs to love which is the ultimate cause of their inability to repent.



Wurmbrand said...

Well, here's a thought, and perhaps someone will tell me if the Tolkienian data allow it.

Could the Orcs be creatures whose spirits are wicked souls of departed hnau (Elves or Men) that have been conjured into them by Sauron?

I was asking myself the other day why Sauron is called "the Necromancer" -- since we are never told that he conjures the dead.

We have also the difficulty that you cite of accounting for qualities that would suggest the Orcs have a soul or spirit and yet they evidently are incapable of repentance.

Sauron would either be unnaturally "animating" dead bodies in this way, or perhaps perversely "grafting" wicked souls and the bodies of animals (or derived from animals, in the manner of H. G. Wells's Dr. Moreau).

In late writing we see Tolkien wrestling with the nature of the Orcs... I wonder if he might have arrived at something like this.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - I don't feel very drawn to your suggestion, mainly on the basis that it seems un-Tolkienian - too 'magical' a process.

For what it is worth, I always have assumed that Morgoth worked his evil by some kind of torture/ brainwashing process - including forcing men to do evil things in order to break their spirit - combined with his godly (lower case) power to daunt the spirit, shape the body, overwhelm the will etc; indeed, simply to be in Morgoth's presence (before he weakened himself) could break the mind and allow it to be reshaped.

Somewhere, I think Tolkien commented that the ruining of men (or elves, as was sometimes said) into orcs may have been Morgoth's greatest sin of all. He seems to have left them 'in principle' still men, such that they could *theoretically* repent - yet somehow made it such that they never actually did.

My feeling is that such a situation - or something resembling it fairly closely - may happen among humans. But that salvation may remain possible due to a 'latent' capacity for love - I am thinking of the web of co-inherence. Maybe something of the sort might even extend beyond humans - e.g with dogs and horses.

But there seems to be nothing of that kind going on among orcs.

Wurmbrand said...

I see I slipped right away in relating the origin of the Orcs to Sauron rather than to Morgoth... so that suggests how much my suggestion was worth!

It is interesting, though,that Shippey (Road to Middle-earth 2003 edition) suggests "Orcs" comes from "Orcneas," "the 'demon-corpses' of the Beowulf poet." It would seem that we should press the "demon-corpse" idea as far as it will go without contradicting anything that Tolkien says about the Orcs, always recognizing that we are speculating about how Tolkien himself might have developed his understanding of them had he lived to reflect further.

Thus, Tolkien as "translator" or "transmitter" of ancient lore has settled on a word for these creatures that is drawn from Beowulf and that conveys the idea of demons (perhaps here meaning "wicked souls" that are not necessarily biblical demons, i.e. fallen angels*), and we see that the lord of the Orcs in the Third Age -- whose demise immediately sends them into confusion -- is called the Necromancer. There then does hover around the Orcs a strong suggestion that though they are alive, and "multiply" (presumably sexually), there is something also about them that relates, in a profoundly evil way, to death. Now what can we do with that?

*Is it possible that the soul-principle in Orcs is somewhat akin to the animating principle in, say, Old Man Willow? Old Man Willow is rational, articulate, wicked....

GFC said...

My feeling is that such a situation - or something resembling it fairly closely - may happen among humans. But that salvation may remain possible due to a 'latent' capacity for love - I am thinking of the web of co-inherence. Maybe something of the sort might even extend beyond humans - e.g with dogs and horses.

Dr. Charlton,

I feel this is in the cards for humans, or will be if there isn't a divine intervention. This is the goal of our elite, eventually: to understand genetic engineering to such an extent as it would enable them to make changes to the human species to 'improve' it, ostensibly to breed out violence and other negative qualities, but ultimately to re-create humans so that they are servile by nature and unable to do anything but what their masters desire. A perfect slavery that could never be overturned because it would be impossible for humans to be anything but what their masters wished. C.S. Lewis talks about this in The Abolition of Man, and of course this is what has already happened in Brave New World, at least with the lower orders.

It seems that the elite are desperately trying to race to this objective before the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. By Divine Grace, I don't think they'll make it.

And unless those days had been shortened, no flesh should be saved: but for the sake of the elect those days shall be shortened. Matthew 24:22

Bruce Charlton said...

@GFC - I have had very similar thoughts.

Wurmbrand said...


Indeed, why, from their own POV, should the elite not seek this? Where in all their history is there an instance in which they drew back from the "next step"?

If so, then the question is not whether anything would prevent world elites from going ahead, but whether either such redesign is inherently impossible -- or, as you suggest, God acts to prevent it.

Bruce Charlton said...

"we see that the lord of the Orcs in the Third Age -- whose demise immediately sends them into confusion -- is called the Necromancer"

I expect that you are onto something. Having been reading Shippey lately I realize that Tolkien's choice of names was always significant, although it can be hard for ordinary mortals to unravel.

Wurmbrand said...

I forgot to cite -- the Shippey point is on page 65 of the 2003 edition.

Again, admittedly one is speculating, but is it possible that Tolkien would have come around to something like the idea of Dante in Inferno Canto 33? Here we learn that the souls of betrayers of guests may drop down to Hell before their deaths, their bodies being taken by a demon, who controls it until it is time for the body to die.

Probably that isn't relevant to Tolkien, but it might be worth working a little more with this idea of Sauron as the "Necromancer," though he was not the one who originally "bred" (as Tolkien puts it) the Orcs.

One other possibility is that the "breeding" is more literally true than is sometimes supposed. We know that the Maiar can mate with Elves (Melian and Thingol). Morgoth is a Vala and they do not reproduce, a female Maia may unite with a male Elf. Is it possible that one of Morgoth's corrupted Maiar was the original father or mother, in union with a male or female Elf, of the Orcs?

Again, I'm asking -- not contending for this notion.

I could well imagine that Tolkien himself would find such speculations so unsavoury as to decline to pursue them.

Wurmbrand said...

To continue, though.

We read in Morgoth's Ring (p. 409) where Tolkien faces up to the unacceptability of absolute perversion as an heritable condition.

But the Orcs appear to have (depraved) souls.

Since neither Morgoth nor Sauron can create souls, the souls of Orcs must be unnaturally infused into them from existing wicked souls.

The Orcs are parodies, I believe we read somewhere ("mockeries" might be the word -- we need to keep this in view). Very well: a Man or an Elf is a soul-body unity. A parody or mockery thereof would be a travesty, a creature with a body and a soul that are *not* a unity but rather a forcible yoking-together of disparate things.

Dante may provide the clue. The bodies of Orcs may be derived from some deplorable mating as I previously suggested. These bodies might even be born dead. But then they are animated by the forcible "uniting" of corpse with a wicked spirit, the work of Morgoth's agents such as Sauron the Necromancer. When Sauron is destroyed, remember, the Orcs are bewildered immediately -- as if they are "disintegrating" perhaps?

These are just speculations. We have a few givens: Morgoth could not *create* the Orcs, but "bred" them as mockeries of Eru's creation. Presumably they will express Morgoth's spite towards God -- the more detestable they are, the better, from his point of view. Tolkien chose a word that suggests the "demon-corpses" of the Beowulf poet. Moreover the Elvish word (o)rok suggested not only terror but "'phantoms' (spirits assuming visible forms)" -- Morgoth's Ring 413. Orcs are rational but it would seem terribly out of keeping with the way they are presented, to consider that they might be redeemable. Orcs are closely associated with Sauron, who is called the Necromancer although we see nothing to suggest he conjures the dead in order to have them tell him the future, which is what a strict interpretation of the name would suggest. And the chief "given," of course, is that the latest writings on the matter that we have from Tolkien do not resolve everything.

Wurmbrand said...

Yet a couple of further notes.

1.Beowulf says that Grendel and his mother are descendants of Cain. The idea of monsters as derived from human stock would thus be one with which Tolkien was very well acquainted. One might hazard the speculation that, just as Tolkien's conception of the Elves is a renewing of traditional ideas (as against the diminutive sprites idea), so with the Orcs Tolkien was renewing, refurbishing, another traditional idea in some way.

2.I indicated earlier an idea that depraved Maiar might be involved, at Morgoth's direction, in the breeding of the Orkish stock, but shied away from the idea that Morgoth himself could be the "father." But I see from page 399 tha, as late as the "Notes on the Motives in the Silamrillion," Tolkien was imagining even the Valar as capable of sexual reproduction -- Fionwe is the son of Manwe, who is the next greatest Valar to Melkor/Morgoth. This suggests the possibility of Morgoth himself as involved in the "breeding" of Orcs (or Balrogs, etc.). Do I think Tolkien would have settled on some such conception of the Orcs? I doubt it, but perhaps it is possible.

Wurmbrand said...

A last few comments before I leave this topic for the day (still Friday evening here):

1.Tolkien may have been influenced by the medieval Icelandic idea of the *draugr*. These revenants (e.g. Glam in Grettir's Saga) are all too corporeal; you don't lay these ghosts with words of power but have to beat them in strenuous battle. For all their physicality, though, the word originally means a ghost or apparition, according to Wikipedia.

This means that the Elvish (o)rok is a very similar word -- it originally suggests a dreadful spirit, but is the base for the word for the very corporeal Orcs.

2.In Morgoth's Ring, Tolkien writes that Morgoth gave to Orcs and Balrogs the power of "multiplication" (p. 391). They thus sound like a species that can breed, and yet Tolkien clearly will not have it that Morgoth can create living things. Orcs eat, drink, become tired, can recuperate (as Tolkien says on p. 391). Are they born, nursed, reared, etc.? We see no indication of this. One possibility is that their bodies are somehow derived from corpses (cf. Orcneas, "demon-corpse") that are then animated in the manner I have suggested. It might also be possible that they reproduce sexually but the offspring are born dead or at least basically inert, then animated by the forcible yoking-together of a wicked spirit with the body. Disgusting, I know! -- but in some way or other, so it *must* be if these creatures are to be mockeries of Eru's creatures.

Finally, and I have hesitated to write this (delete, of course, if you wish) -- I have wondered if there is some clue to the origin and nature of the Orcs in that, though they are derived in some way apparently from Men and/or Elves, they do all of the things that invaders do -- plunder, burn, torture, enslave, kill, defile, demolish -- except, apparently, *one*. Tolkien may simply have been (and we may be thankful for it) unwilling even to mention such obscenity. Or is this a clue that suggests something about the makeup of the Orcs?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Dale - My own feeling is that the mockery is likely to be something more like a disconnection than an infusing.

i.e. That the orcs have the normal human emotions, in their worst form, but disconnected from each other.

I wonder if there is a clue in the fact that, despite being cowardly, orce seem never to surrender nor sue for mercy. Humans of that type probably would.

Do orcs have a sexual drive? I should say not; but it may be that this was simply not a factor Tolkien wrote about - for example, he does not represent the speech of human soldiers in this way, although of course he knew it from experience.

My feeling is that the necromancy element may refer to some rather small scale and specific activity - rather than the mass production of orcs. Someone more learned than me would need to look hard at the word necromancer to understand its relevant etymology - we can't assume that Tolkien meant the same by thisword as we do.

For instance, he called the Noldor the Gnomes for some decades, despite that his friends and neighbours begane to used the word to refer to cute little garden ornaments.

Wurmbrand said...

Yes, I agree that Tolkien might not have meant the word "Necromancer" literally. He might have meant something less specific -- perhaps "evil magician" or even "evil supernatural being." But neither of those broader meanings is what "necromancer" really means, as attention to the word's roots shows.

I'm continuing to reread portions of Morgoth's Ring and will probably have more to say here as I do. For now I should report that Tolkien on page 405 says that Morgoth could not beget progeny. Yet he says that Morgoth attempted to "ravish" Arien the Sun-Maiden, to "distain" her. Morgoth evidently was capable of some kind of rape, but this act could not result in offspring. "Evil is barren" -- literally.

Here it's time for me to state a few things explicitly. First, Tolkien shies away from evoking horror in a "graphic" way.* Compared to Lewis (e.g. the Un-Man in Perelandra, or several elements of That Hideous Strength) or Williams (e.g. the succubus in Descent into Hell), Tolkien avoids descriptions of horrifying things, with the exception of Shelob. Tolkien hardly says what the Orcs look like. We are given just a glimpse of the hand of the Barrow-wight. And so on. Second, Tolkien's writing often gains in imaginative power because he doesn't pin things down too precisely. Bombadil is an intriguing character and it is fun to speculate about just who/what he is, but perhaps it is as well that Tolkien doesn't tell us whether or not he is a Maia, etc. Third, because Tolkien can be reticent about origins, etc., his conceptions can suggest some associations with imaginative tradition in a way that enriches his story. Many of his creatures seem familiar to us from outside the story and yet they are always truly Tolkien's too: elves, trolls, dwarves, etc.

*Tolkien evokes terror (e.g. when Pippin looks into the Palantir, or when Frodo puts on the Ring, or when the Nazgul pursue the hobbits in the Shire). *Terror* could be defined as fear raised to the level of the "sublime." *Horror" could be described as revulsion approaching the level of the "sublime." Tolkien virtually never harrows the reader with the latter.

Wurmbrand said...

Concluding Unscientific Postscript:

Yes -- after all my speculations, you seem to be right about men as corrupted into Orcs -- see page 421 of Morgoth's Ring.

Also Tolkien rejected the Old English meaning of "Orc" as "not suitable" (p. 422), so we have to be cautious about reading anything from it into JRRT's statements. However it could be that his rejection of the OE word -- dating to after the publication of LOTR -- represents a late conclusion, and that as he was writing the book it *was* important on an imaginative level, where the final rejection was a more "theological" conclusion.

Speaking of which, there are obvious problems with the idea (that I mentioned earlier) of Morgoth as a possibly "sexual" being, given that he is equated with the devil. The only biblical use of "children of the devil" is clearly figurative. The assault that Morgoth intended against Arien would not have been a literal rape.

ivvenalis said...

Morgoth might not have been able to create living things, maybe his corruptions retained their procreative ability. He (and his successors) clearly had some method of producing orcs in large numbers.

There are clearly different "races" of orcs (the Moria "goblins" are distinct for example). This could have resulted from differing "root stocks", or it could be the result of breeding as in men. Knowledgeable characters speculate that Saruman has used selective breeding to create the Uruk-hai, possibly including cross-breeding with men. This is never explicitly confirmed, but presumably Aragorn and Gandalf would be familiar with orcish ways. As per DLN, Tolkien would never have made this any more explicit, and he provides no alternative explanation.

While it wouldn't present much of an issue to a Calvinist, I think Tolkien would have found the idea of a soul damned from creation unpalatable as a Catholic. Possibly he was still trying to resolve this issue at the end of his life.

As for Morgoth himself, Manwe, another Valar (who are gendered), had a son. And the description of Morgoth when he sees Luthien dancing before his throne might be the most explicit reference to sexual desire that appears in the entire mythology. Even if he couldn't father a child, some sort of vestigial sexuality remained with him.

Bruce Charlton said...

@iwenalis "I think Tolkien would have found the idea of a soul damned from creation unpalatable as a Catholic" - I feel that this notion of a soul damned from creation is a philosophical error, due to making a fase equation between human perceived linear time and the timeless eternity of God. But I don't suppose Tolkien made that error.

As I said, I think that orcs are no more predestined for damnation than the worst humans - but no less.

Orcs share the sin of their masters - pride; which is the rejection of love.

If you consider the orcish conversations in LotR - every individual orc is utterly selfish, convinced of his rightness in every situation and whatever happens, and none shows any love for anybody or anything else.

Wurmbrand said...

I could have spared everyone some erroneous speculations above had I remembered Troels pointing out elsewhere that Morgoth's Ring (p. 224) provides an explanation of why Sauron is the "Necromancer."