The Unnatural History of Tolkien's Orcs

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Title: The Unnatural History of Tolkien's Orcs
Creator: Tyellas
Date(s): March/April 2004
Medium: online, print
Fandom: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, Tolkien's works, fantasy
Topic: orcs
External Links: @ Ansereg
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The Unnatural History of Tolkien's Orcs is an essay by Tyellas in the Tolkien fandom, first published in 2004. The author summary is:

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. Other fans have written orc essays as well, and hopefully this is a slightly interesting addition to the list.

It won the 'Best critical essay or research article' category of the Mithril Awards 2004.[1] The essay is archived at Tyellas' personal site, Ansereg, as a PDF. It was also been published in print form in the journal Lembas Extra in 2012.


  • Orcs are all-pervasive in modern fantasy. An appendix collects RPGs & fantasy novels that use the orc race or similar creatures under other names, including the Eragon, Shannara & Fionavar Tapestry series
  • Unlike his other races which draw on earlier beings, Tolkien invented the race of orcs to provide a convenient Evil Adversary race, though Tolkien stated that they drew from the tradition of goblins, especially as in George MacDonald
  • Although in The Silmarillion, orcs are stated to be created by Morgoth from elves, Tolkien had various ideas of their origins, including corrupted men, animals or Maiar
  • Their lack of an individual language suggests Tolkien's lack of engagement with the race
  • Orc food includes bread and meat, and is edible to other races. Cannibalism is not mentioned
  • Orc reproduction occurs in the usual fashion, although no orc females are mentioned. Tolkien never explicitly mentions orcs committing rape
  • Orc appearance is described in a letter in a racially stereotyped fashion, but Tolkien also compared them to evil Europeans
  • Orcs are inventive, sing and form friendships/alliances with other orcs, humans, wolves/wargs
  • Although orcs are embodied evil, Tolkien did not rule out redemption for individuals
  • Tolkien's unfinished sequel to LotR envisages orc-cults rising in young Gondorians


...As noted, orcs’ role in Tolkien’s narratives is simple. It is their place in Middle-Earth cosmology that makes them complex, entangled in issues of the nature of evil, free will, and redemption.

Because Orcs, in Tolkien’s cosmology, are not meant to exist, they would seem to represent the unseelie, uncanny, and wrong – the classical Other. The idea of the Other gains power from its reflection in the self, and what is reflected in the orcs is the possibility for banal evil in all peoples, very specifically humans.

Instead, Orcs are evil made manifest, and a very specific evil at that, the will of their masters. ...

Reception & Reviews

The essay was well received, and has been cited in fan discussions as well as at least one academic book on Tolkien.[2] Reviewers particularly appreciated Tyellas' point that the orc race was created by Tolkien.

Intellectual and engaging (Mithril Awards judge)[1]
Quite a good essay on an interesting topic (Mithril Awards judge)[1]
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. (The Lauderdale)[3]
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! (Lyra)[3]
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. (Erulisse)[3]
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. (Raksha the Demon)[3]
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! (Dreamflower)[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. (Adonnen Estenniel)[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! (grey_gazania)[3]


  1. ^ a b c Mithril Awards 2004: Award Winners (accessed 9 July 2016)
  2. ^ Bradford Lee Eden (ed). The Hobbit and Tolkien's Mythology: Essays on Revisions and Influences (McFarland; 2014)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g MEFA Archive 2011: The Unnatural History of Tolkien's Orcs (accessed 9 July 2016)