Did Tolkien ever write about Orc society?

Lets put the the movie’s somewhat cartoonish representations of the Orcs aside, and deal directly with the text. They’re not complete savages. They’ve got swords and armor and can form armies with command structures. They have medicines and language and heros of their own, and a long oral history. There are little Orc children called goblins (Gollum used to eat them) and assumedly (the movies fondue pot birth origin aside) there have to be Orc women caring for them.

With this in mid how did Tolkien imagine Orcs lived? In villages or as nomadic tribes. Do they farm or are they simply carnivorous hunters and scavengers. How did all those armies of orcs get fed and clothed and taught language, and how to fight and use weapons?

The movie orcs are not particularly out there: a lot of illustrators drew them much mroe exxagerated, and the Uruk-hai are dead-on. I don’t think Tolkein worked out much about the orcs, certainly I’ve never sen anything definite. They didn’t exactly have a natural environment: they were born by an evil demiGod and their whole lives were spent in brutal warfare in very marginal environments.

I seem to remember Tolkien mentioning at some point that orcs were deliberately bred as part of forced matings between Elves and (mumble) and were not delivered whole out of a crock pot of goo per the movie or borne/created by an evil demigod. Assuming a roughly 50/50 birth ratio this means there were female orcs at some point and females (along with the other stuff I mentioned generally means there are societies existing) .

In poking around after asking the OP I did find this note “What was the origin of the Orcs?” which seems to answer the general question by indicating Tolkien did not address this issue with any depth.



JRRT struggled a lot in later years with the nature of orcs. He did not like to think that any sentient creature was irredeemable, yet he seemed to have painted himself into a tight corner by portraying orcs as such. One of JRRT’s desires was to rewrite and re-define the origin and nature of orcs to be more in line with these beliefs. Unfortunately he never managed to get this done. Or even really started.

I don’t know of any real significant writings by Tolkien on the nature of orc society or family life.

About the only additional light I can shed, is to refer to the conversation between Shagrat and Gorbag in Cirith Ungol, where they speak wistfully of a desire to get away from their current state, and set up a nice little looting & pillaging business, far away from war and strife. Kind of touching, really.

And, in THE HOBBIT, the orcs seem to have some sort of underground mountain society.

Not what you’d call high society, of course, one doesn’t imagine them sitting around with delicate china tea cups, say.

From their investigation of the “crime scene” when they find Frodo’s body, I always thought that Gorbag had a future as a detective. (It’s Orc CSI, coming this fall on CBS!)

Seriously, the glimpses into goblin life in The Hobbit may give some idea of what orcs are like in their more natural state. BTW, goblins are not orc children, only smaller ones–or, rather, orcs are oversized goblins.

In The Hobbit, they seem to have a hierarchical social structure, with a Great Goblin running things until Gandalf kills him, and their own army before Sauron starts recruiting.

Tolkien describes them in Chapter 4 as as skilled tunnelers and miners as dwarves, “though they are usually untidy and dirty,” and makers of tools such as “hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture… It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once…”

“Orc society” is an oxymoron.

I seem to recall a reference to vast agricultural areas around Lake Nurnen, along with an admonition against thinking that all of Sauron’s servants were warlike. I’m not about to go searching for it, though. Anyone remember what I’m thinking of?

Sauron’s Nurnish slaves were human, not Orcs, I believe. Remember that not all of Sauron’s servants were Orcs…he had Easterlings and Southrons in his armies as well. It’s quite likely that the Nurnish were slaves captured when Sauron took Ithilien from Gondor.

My impression is that the word Orc is simply a word for goblin in some (made up) language or another. In other words, Orcs were called Goblins in The Hobbit because it was a children’s book and the word goblin would be familiar and conjure up pretty much the right image. Also maybe he hadn’t fleshed out his ideas on Orcs yet (speculation).

I do recall a line in the Hobbit to the effect that there were big goblins living in a certain place and they were described as “real Orcs”, but I think that this doesn’t necessarily indicated that the term Orc refers to a larger Goblin.

Orc origins
Etymology of “Orc”

Since I still have the book here on the desk… See near the end of Chapter 5, just after Bilbo runs from Gollum, and before he squeezes out the door and tears off his buttons:

I believe this is the only use of the word “orc” in The Hobbit, except in the name of Thorin’s sword, Orcrist, “Goblin-cleaver.”

I may be wrong, but I’ve never thought of the two as more than variations of the same race/species.

IIRC, (been a while since I’ve read LOTR), the Uruk-Hai were a super-race of Orcs, bred over centuries by Sauron to be shock troops in the armies of Mordor.

I think the “springing whole from a pot of goo” was a cinematic convenience, a short-hand way of explaining both the origin of the Uruk-Hai and how a bunch of 'em got to be part of Saruman’s army. FOTR was three hours long without going into the story of the origins of the Uruk-Hai, which wasn’t really that important to the larger story anyway.

It’s not the only reference. At some point (I think in “Queer Lodgings”) Gandalf is explaining to Bilbo why they can’t go round Mirkwood, and he explains that before they got round in the North they would be bumping up against the Grey Mountains, which are “simply stiff with orcs…” (would have to check the wording) - but you’re right, the expression isn’t often used.

“Orc” and “Uruk” are basically the same word. “Uruk-Hai” is “high orc” in the Black Speech of Mordor.

JRRT apparently took the word from the Latin Orcus, which seems to be an alternate name for the god Pluto. The same word is the origin of “ogre”.

Do orcs have society? Somewhat. They don’t pop out of the mud like the films show, but they have some primative tribal hierarchy. They have languages, writing, and metalcraft, but these have been taught to them rather than being their own invention. They have names and are individuals, but seem motivated by little else than fear and base desire.

Yes, you’re right: “Stiff with goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst kind.” I stand corrected on this point.

However, orcs do seem to be associated with mountains in both cases, so I’m going to cling to my tunnelers and miners theory `til some proof otherwise comes along.

Could part of the orcs hatred and fear of sun light be because of the possible explanation of their origin? (Captured and debased Elves from before the coming of Sun and Moon.)

That would explain why they like living in mountains and stuff. Especially since Melkor and his cohorts really seemed to like being hidden and unseen until they had an upper hand in whatever endeavor they were planning.

Well, Morgoth gathered the early orcs into the dungeons of Thangorodrim, with its endless subterranian tunnels and mines, where they were further bred and worked. So they were underground dwellers long before the sun arose. That may have contributed something to it.

To me, this has always been the most annoying and puzzling part of JRRT’s work. The moral world of Middle Earth is in most respects sophisticated–many of the characters are both good and bad, even the best are weak at times, some succumb to temptation and some do not, some redeem themselves, some are morally neutral. Frodo, the main character, is averse to violence. This fits beautifully with the themes of the small having a place in the world, with courage having little to do with war and with pity being redemptive.

So why do we spend so much time slaughtering orcs? We even get to keep score and glory in it. We don’t have to ask whether a particular orc is evil–we stay our hands for Gollum and Wormtongue, but not for orcs. It’s as if JRRT liked (or at least recognized) violence as a compelling force even in “good” humans–it sure is gratifying to be able to enjoy orc death (in heaps! with blood and gore!) without silly moral compunctions. Feeling peckish today? Go off a few orcs, no need to examine the morality of that. Black and white, it is. But then why is Frodo different?

JRRT should have made the orcs into automatons–could have satisfied the bent for violence and machine-bashing with one stone.