There are a number of misconceptions and myths about the orcs in Tolkien's Legendarium. Part of this is because of Peter Jackson's appalling film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and I dare say that most of the misconceptions and myths are a result of that. There are many reasons Christopher Tolkien was against the films after all.

Now in this piece I'm going to react to a list called Lord of the Rings: 10 Things That Make No Sense About Orcs and as the URL would suggest a number of them at the least are because of Peter Jackson's films.

But hopefully this will enlighten some people on the subject of orcs at least in so far as what is known: for indeed there are some things that are unknown and uncertain.

The word 'Orc': what it might conjure in the imagination

The article has this to say:

The word orc likely conjures the image of a great beast of a creature ripping itself from its slime-covered cocoon in front of Christopher Lee's Saruman in the Lord of the Rings films. Orcs were always the majority of foot soldiers for Sauron in his war against the rest of Middle Earth.

First of all it's Middle-earth: not Middle Earth. Second of all no: it doesn't conjure anything of the sort for those who know better. Orc is simply an Old English word for 'demon' and this is what Tolkien intended it to be at least as far as the word meaning itself. He specified this in a Letter (I don't have the book in front of me and it hardly matters).

As for Saruman this is a subject later on so I'll not react to that just yet. However I will say that for me an orc was in mockery of the elves but that doesn't suggest to me anything as for looks though Tolkien does describe them in the Letters (even so there were different looks depending on the tribe and type etc.).

The author suggests that the orcs were the ugliest creatures in The Lord of the Rings but I don't know if I agree with that: that's subjective but it must be said that Shelob was pretty hideous and much more monstrous than the orcs.

Misconception: They used to be Elves

The article states:

According to Tolkien, at least some of the orcs used to be elves. That's right, some orcs have the same ancestors as the beautiful Legolas. Apparently they were tortured and that's how they changed both their appearance and their personalities to the gross and evil kind. They, like elves, can die in battle, but viewers never spend enough time with them to see if, at least some orcs, still possess the immortality of their elf ancestors. Despite the explanations, it's hard to believe that torture can create an entirely new species, bot just a new attitude or outlook.

It's more like that was one of the possible victims that were captured and tortured. In The Silmarillion this is indeed the case. However there were different ideas as far as their origin and elf was only one possible source. I think it was in Unfinished Tales that this I transcribed but again this doesn't really matter where:

To the unfriendly who, not knowing them well, declared Morgoth must have bred the Orcs from such a stock the Eldar answered: 'Doubtless Morgoth, since he can make no living thing, bred Orcs from various kinds of Men, but the Drúedain must have escaped his Shadow; for their laughter and the laughter of Orcs are as different as is the light of Aman from the darkness of Angband.' But some thought, nonetheless, that there had been a remote kinship, which for their special enmity. Orcs and Drûgs (Drúedain) regarded the other as renegades. [Author's note.] - In The Silmarillion the Orcs are said to have been bred by Melkor from captured Elves in the beginning of their days; but this was only one of several diverse speculations on the origin of the Orcs. It may be noted that in The Return of the King V 5 the laughter of Ghân-buri-Ghân is described 'At that old Ghân made a curious gurgling noise, and it seemed that he was laughing.' He is described also as having a scanty beard: it 'straggled on his lumpy chin like dry moss' and dark eyes that showed nothing.

Note the term 'Púkel-men' (a translation: it represents Anglo-Saxon púcel 'goblin, demon', a relative of the word 'púca' from which Puck is derived) was only used in Rohan of the images of the Dunharrow.

Also Treebeard says that the orcs were mockeries of elves just like trolls were mockeries of Ents. This does not suggest they were elves but yes some of them were thought to be nonetheless.

As for a new species: that's not the right word. The word is 'race'. Now whether they were a race or not is another matter entirely but Tolkien wrote quite a bit on creation versus making and I don't see that this will be improved by touching on that.

As for whether they were immortal like the elves (which doesn't mean they couldn't die) it's true we do not really know that; I cannot think of seeing anything about it though that doesn't mean I haven't seen it. It probably was inconsequential to Tolkien and left to the imagination. I would say that they probably were not but that's just a guess. Of course immortal doesn't mean that they would be returned to life: Fëanor was not for example. Eru Ilúvatar judged him directly for all the evils he did. Unlike Glorfindel who was resurrected after his fall with one of the Balrogs in the Fall of Gondolin.

Myth: They Weren't Always A Problem

This is absolutely false. They always were a problem but the author of this article did not dig deep enough if at all. They have this to say:

Orcs, like elves, have been around for a long long time, and yet they were never a real issue until the rise of Sauron. Despite their strength, numbers, and dark nature, orcs seemed to only bother dwarfs. What else were they doing all that time? They weren't exactly building their own culture or cities. They were just sort of around waiting for something to do? It's very weird that they weren't a greater problem for the residents of Middle Earth until an independent leader took charge.

The author should read The Silmarillion: she would find that they were a problem. Also in fact - though I will touch upon this later - Sauron did not make the original orcs: that was the first Dark Lord Morgoth. Sauron made the Uruk-hai, which I will get to soon. Furthermore the orcs caused problems for elves; I don't need to get into this now but I will say that orcs captured and tortured Celebrían, the mother of Arwen and the twin sons Elladan and Elrohir. There are other places orcs caused elves problems as well as other peoples.

Myth: They lived underground

I'm not sure where the author go the idea that they all lived underground. Some lived in mountains; some lived in caves; some lived in Mordor in different parts; etc. Anyway the author says:

Orcs cause major problems for the dwarfs, rather than Middle Earth at large, because they lived underground. Yet, why they lived underground doesn't make much sense. Elves don't live underground, and many of the earliest orcs were descended from elves. Apparently, due to living underground, orcs were also excellent miners, like Gimli and the dwarfs. If they had skills, again, it makes little sense that they weren't a larger problem earlier on for residents across Middle Earth.

Once again a correction: it was dwarves with a V not with an F. I have written about this subject here so I won't get into that more.

Now as for elves not living underground that's not true for all: Thranduil's folks did: you know, the Elves that Bilbo encounters in The Hobbit? Yes his halls were delved underground. I don't know offhand when he made his kingdom but probably orcs were already in existence. But in any event since orcs didn't live strictly 'underground' that hardly matters either.

Misconception: No consistent back story

Originally Tolkien said that all orcs were descended from tortured elves. However, not all orcs come from elves. Beyond the birth of the Uruk Hai that is seen in the Lord of the Rings films, Tolkien's son later admitted that his father wasn't always comfortable with the idea that orcs came from elves.

With their ever-changing backstory[sic] it's no wonder there is confusion over where orcs come from, what they can do, what their goals are, and what they do in their spare time.

As I already noted there was more than one belief but this doesn't make it inconsistent but instead uncertain. And as for the Uruk-hai they weren't created in the way the films depicted it but again I will get to this soon.

It's an extreme exaggeration to say 'ever-changing back story' and it's silly to talk about what they can do and what their goals are and what they do in their spare time. We do know what they can do though this article seems to think they know differently, which they get next.

Why weren't they more successful?

Orcs were strong and talented (see their mining skills mentioned above). Yet, it wasn't until Sauron and Saruman that the orcs also started making a real mark on the different people of Middle Earth. Orcs were never depicted as peaceful so, again, it is strange that they weren't out marauding in the countryside earlier in the history of Middle Earth. They could have been a threat all their own, and been very destructive and powerful if they had taken initiative. It's never exactly clear why they didn't.

First of all I'm not sure what the author means when she suggests that mining skills were discussed earlier since there was nothing of the sort in her 'screen rant' about orcs and mining. Though yes some did: in the Mines of Moria for example though whether they 'mined' proper is another matter entirely I suppose.

Second it's not true, as I already said, that orcs were not a problem before Sauron. They were a problem in the First Age and Second Age as well as Third Age and as I recall they were never completely eradicated at all. But they most certainly were marauding earlier on.

However the orcs could not get along: different tribes fought as we see when Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli were chasing the orcs that captured Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took as well as the orcs of Minas Morgul fighting with the orcs of Cirith Ungol over the spoils of Frodo. Also the hunter and the bigger orc in Mordor that narrowly missed Frodo and Sam; if it wasn't for Gollum messing up the scent they might have been caught. Also the orcs wanting to get to Udûn in Mordor before the other packs.

Myth: Uruk-hai are a creation of Saruman in Isengard

Uruk hai, unlike their elf descended brethren, are bred by Saruman at Isengard. They come from the dark arts and magical creation rather than torture or biological procreation. It is often said that uruk hai are actually a result of the crossbreeding[sic] of humans and orcs. Despite the difference in their backstory[sic], uruk hai are not seen as their own species or creature, they are also known as orcs, even if they are a subset. Why uruk hai would be thrown in with the unsuccessful minions that came before them is a question that remains.

Let me get it out of the way: Uruk-hai is Black Speech for 'Orc folk'. That would suggest to anyone that they come from Mordor. Now it's true that some claim to be from Isengard but elsewhere in the book they are called Isengarders. But one has to remember that much of what Saruman thought was his own was actually in imitation of Mordor: this is specified in numerous places in The Lord of the Rings. As for the dark arts!

This is categorically false. Neither Morgoth nor Sauron nor certainly Saruman had this ability to create life like this. The half-goblins of Isengard were in fact from breeding. There was no other way for it.

As for Uruks there were also Ologs: Trolls. That's also Black Speech. Both of these were more formidable than the Morgoth counterparts: they could withstand the Sun and were more cunning and capable; also the trolls would bite the neck of those they knocked down. Though it's true that yes the orcs of Isengard were more formidable in their own way too.

This is one of the most ridiculous things that Peter Jackson came up with and unfortunately there were many others that were just as ridiculous or impossible. Let me state it clearly once more: Uruks were from Mordor (and Gandalf actually says this in Moria) and the half-goblins of Isengard were bred just like the orcs. Finally the word is race and not species. And there is no question of why they would be thrown in with the supposedly unsuccessful minions that came before them. They were successful: at killing and torture and causing problems for Middle-earth. But they were too foul to be able to do any real good.

Myth: Ents didn't know that Saruman and the Orcs were destroying the trees

Despite how it appears in the films, with Treebeard being shocked at the destruction Saruman and Isengard have wrought on the forest, the fact that Treebeard didn't know in advance seems absurd. Orcs are not very smart, and yet the Ents are. The Ents claim they can communicate with the trees, and yet fans are supposed to believe no trees sent out the message that they were being destroyed. Orcs are not talented or secretive enough to have pulled off a move like this, even with Saruman's involvement.

In the book they knew very well that the orcs were causing problems. The scene where Pippin has to trick Treebeard into going towards Isengard so that he would see the wanton destruction only for Treebeard to call all the others is ridiculous: what was the entire point of the Entmoot if all he had to do is call them? And Treebeard is the one who calls upon the Entmoot because he has known that the orcs were causing problems. The Ents were for them rather hasty (something they were not usually) when it came to doing something about Isengard because they knew they were in peril and worse if they didn't do anything (and they might be if they did but they definitely would be if they didn't).

In other words only in the film does it not make sense but that's a Peter Jackson thing (if I may coin the term: a Peter Jacksonism).

Myth: Orcs were not able to cause real problems before Saruman

In The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson makes it clear that orcs need to be constantly watched if they are going to be successful and organized as a fighting force. This means that orcs, despite their strength and numbers, can be very vulnerable to the well-organized men, elves, and dwarfs who they find themselves fighting against.

Peter Jackson didn't write The Lord of the Rings and if one is to look at the films he knows very little indeed about it so to follow HIS logic is folly. However it is true that orcs are vile enough that they kill their own kind and sometimes do help out inadvertently their opponents. On the other hand their sheer numbers are devastating and if it weren't for the Huorns who destroyed the orcs at the Battle of the Hornburg (which the film calls The Battle of Helm's Deep) they might have been successful.

While it's obvious that, before Saruman, orcs were not organized enough to do any real damage to Middle Earth, they still managed to survive. What helpful traits led them to this minor success is never revealed.

No. It's not obvious. What's obvious is you never read the book and you believe the films are canon. There is no need for evidence of them managing to survive. What's known though is they started to multiply in The Lord of the Rings but this wasn't a just Saruman thing.

Myth: Only Orcs are classified based on where they come from

Elves live in Lindon, Lothlórien, and Rivendell and yet they are all just elves. Yet, orcs are categorized often by where they come from. There are Mordor Orcs, Isengard Orcs, Dol Guldur Orcs, and the Orcs of the Misty Mountains, along with the specific uruk hai. Why a disorganized species would have so many categories assigned to them doesn't make any sense at all.

This is also not true. The Galadhrim, or tree people, were those of Lothlórien. They included Silvan elves.

But there were other kinds too: the Noldor is an example. There were other tribes as well. As for there being categories for the orcs is it really difficult to understand? It wasn't that they were categorised: it was only that they came from this place or that place to identify them. And this also happened with the Elves. And the Dwarves. And even in some ways Hobbits and definitely Men also.

Myth: They follow orders well

Despite their numbers and their strength, even as unorganized as they are, it is very strange how well orcs seem to take orders. They march and so as their told when sent out by Saruman to end the age of men and begin the age of the orc. Again, why they never used their strength and numbers to do anything, including to sack towns and villages before they were pulled together by Saruman and Sauron seems like a lost opportunity.

Anyone who says this has not read The Lord of the Rings. They did not follow orders well. They could not be trusted. They fought each other against orders. They would never have been told the details about the Ring. Etc.

In fact one of the orcs from the Misty Mountains that is with those who kidnapped Merry and Pippin directly states that they were there only to avenge their fallen. They didn't care about the orders of Saruman. And the orcs there from Mordor thought Saruman a fool (and they were right too).


In conclusion I will say there were some things about the orcs that were uncertain; I mentioned some. But there are also some myths and misconceptions and misunderstandings about the orcs too. The above are some of those myths etc. I have seen others. I do not mean to pick on the author of this article but the claims are so bad and so unfair to Tolkien that I felt I had to write something about it. If I encounter other things about orcs - or if I see that this could be improved in other ways - I will possibly update this (more likely if I see a way this can be improved than if I come across other things that could be added about orcs). Perhaps I will discuss what we do know about the orcs, for example, in the future, but for now this is all I have.

* ChangeLog (since 29 August 2020)