Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Where are all the female orcs?

I have to admit that one of my favorite bits of speculation/inference in Middle-earth studies is the problem of the orcs, their origin and reproduction. Here's are the inter-related suites of problems as succinctly as I can express them:

To have exciting battles, you need lots of cannon fodder (which is why in FRPGs the generic term for relatively weak bad guys who are easily killed is "orcs").

Morgoth and Sauron, by theological definition, "cannot make, they can only mock," that is, they cannot generate ex nihilo free-willed (or pseudo-free-willed) creatures to serve them.

So you need a source for orcs.

The only free-willed creatures in Middle-earth are Valar and Maiar ("powers," angelic/demonic spirits), the "Children of Iluvatar" (elves and men), and a kind of special dispensation given to the dwarves, ents, and apparently the eagles.

So, I think Tolkien reasoned, the orcs were somehow transformed elves, elves who had been subject to torture until they became orcs.

But this clashes, possibly, with his reincarnation of the elves idea.

And there's an associated problem, that the production of countless orcs for cannon fodder purposes then requires a very extensive operation of elf-torture over many years, even years when Morgoth and/or Sauron are not present in Middle-earth.

So, you could let the orcs breed (and at least in LotR and Silm there are hints that Tolkien adopts this idea).

But breeding is problematic, as it includes elements of sexual pleasure (we'd assume) and even more so that someone would have to love and nurse the cuddly little baby orcs. And so when you're spearing Shagrat, you're killing some mother's beloved son.

I think towards the end of his life, JRRT was tending towards making the orcs having been men who volunteered for Morgoth's evil and were thus transformed (doesn't solve the breeding / raising innocent little cuddlesome orc babies).

But I think there might be a simpler explanation, consistent with both the origins of the word "orc" and the later development of Tolkien's thought regarding the reincarnation of the elves.

"Orc" comes from Beowulf 112; a list of monsters includes "eotenas ond ylfe ond orc-neas", usually translated as ettins (trolls), elves and animated corpses (in some of his earlier work Tolkien translated orc-neas as "barrow wights"). So we have the concept of the animated corpse.

Now, what animates the corpse? Here I turn to the philosophical essays in Morgoth's Rings. Morgoth, in his attempt to control Arda, became like a glacier of evil, calving off bits of evil throughout the world. He puts forth some of his spirit, and gets Glaurung, and when Turin kills Glaurung, that little bit of evil is gone from Morgoth. Thus Morgoth grows smaller and less powerful the longer he is in Angband, but the amount of evil in the world stays the same or grows slightly larger as his evils creations work evil into the very fabric of the world.

Now, where does the corpse come from? I think from elves. Tolkien's original ideas about elves and orcs could work if the process of elvish reincarnation that Tolkien eventually settled on were to work. There are, for elves, two components in a living creature: a Fea, or spirit, and a hroa, or body. And, Tolkien says, the Fea creates the body (he got this idea from Charles Kinglsey's The Water Babies but don't you dare steal it because I'm writing it into an article for Chris Vacarro, whom I went to high school with, but I digress...).

So, if an elf's body, his Hroa, is killed, his spirit, Fea, goes to Mandos to wait until such time as it is appropriate for him to grow a new body (Tolkien ended up rejecting the idea that the elf spirit would be borne as a baby to its parents, or to some other parents, etc).

So, if Morgoth captures an elf, and tortures it until its spirit leaves its body and goes off to Mandos to grow a new body, the old body remains in the possession of Morgoth. He can imbue that tortured body with his dark spirit, thus making a orc without creating something new.

I know there are some subtle problems still, but for the sake of argument, let's say that the above can explain the origin of orcs: Morgoth has calved off bits of himself and set them in elf bodies. It explains the "animated corpses" connection and the "not allowed to make" objection.

But once Morgoth was cast out of the Doors of Night, where did the new orcs come from? We're back to breeding in some way. I'd propose some kind of hideous rite in which the orcs hack off pieces of their limbs, which then re-grow into new creatures. These each have the same identity of the orc from whom they are chopped, so they're immediately viciously rivalrous with that orc. That way you squeeze out sexual love and familial affection. Maybe orcs force other orcs to breed because the process is so miserably painful.

So really this is just a long train of bizarre speculation set off by Emma Goldman's interesting post on the possibility of female orcs in Middle-earth.

17 comments:

Lisa Spangenberg said...

There's all that stuff in Vol. X of the History regarding Orcs -- see esp. the breeding of Orcs and men, c.418, though given the nature of the History, and the various versions and revisions even in this volume, there's no knowing.

Jason Fisher said...

The only free-willed creatures in Middle-earth are Valar and Maiar ("powers," angelic/demonic spirits), the "Children of Iluvatar" (elves and men), and a kind of special dispensation given to the dwarves, ents, and apparently the eagles.

I think you're getting into a really sticky area here. You're suggesting that orcs have no free will of their own, but I'm not so sure you can jump to this conclusion. Free will is a mighty problematic notion. Consider all the in-fighting between different breeds of orcs—might this not represent a kind of free will? And the cowardice of some orcs, too. But perhaps you just meant that orcs have an inherent (and unshakeable?) loyalty to evil? They might fight amongst themselves, but they would never defect from Morgoth / Sauron? That I can buy. But perhaps I’m splitting hairs.

But what about trolls (whom Tolkien implies are twisted ents)? There’s certainly an implication that they are a bit more independent than orcs. The ones up in the Ettenmoors seem, more or less, to be independent loners, not Sauron loyalists. Do they have free will?

And as for other creatures, what about the fox who observes the hobbits passing through the Shire in “Three Is Company”? Does he have free will? He certainly has a voice (though one approach to this problem is a textual one—i.e., this chapter was drafted so much earlier than the later ones). What about the bears and Beornings in The Hobbit? And what of the giants in the Misty Mountains that Tolkien alludes to? Of course, again, these are very early creations.

And what of Gollum? He’s certainly been twisted and perverted by the evil of the Ring, but arguably, there are still traces of his own free fighting to break the surface.

But breeding is problematic, as it includes elements of sexual pleasure (we'd assume) and even more so that someone would have to love and nurse the cuddly little baby orcs. And so when you're spearing Shagrat, you're killing some mother's beloved son.

Assuming that orcs did breed sexually, I don’t know why one should have to assume there’s any love or nurturing about it? One theory I’ve seen in the newsgroups is that (taking the pro-breeding side of the argument) orc-babies might reach physical maturity and independence at a very rapidly accelerated rate. This would also make sense from the standpoint of Darwinian adaptation (I’m putting together some notes on a Darwinian approach to Tolkien, à la Madam Bovary’s Ovaries)—the life of an orc is so difficult that it’s highly adaptable to reach maturity very quickly. So I think it’s certainly possible that orcs do have sex, but that it’s merely a grudgingly physical act, with nothing of love about it, and that they more or less abandon their offspring soon after they’re born.

I think towards the end of his life, JRRT was tending towards ...

I think part of the problem with trying to find an in-story solution to the problem is that (a) Tolkien left so few unequivocal statements about it, and / because (b) Tolkien himself never quite made up his mind. I think the whole idea was just a little too grisly even for him. :-)

"Orc" comes from Beowulf 112; a list of monsters includes "eotenas ond ylfe ond orc-neas", usually translated as ettins (trolls), elves and animated corpses (in some of his earlier work Tolkien translated orc-neas as "barrow wights"). So we have the concept of the animated corpse ...

This is an intriguing idea! And it would help to address the question of how a being with free will (like an elf) might lose that will (as a orc). The will goes to the Halls of Mandos with the elf’s fea, leaving no will (other than that imitation of will imbued to the empty husk by Morgoth—but as Ilúvatar said to Aulë of the dwarves in the beginning, then, these creatures would only move or speak in direct accordance with their master’s direction).

But once Morgoth was cast out of the Doors of Night, where did the new orcs come from? We're back to breeding in some way. I'd propose some kind of hideous rite in which the orcs hack off pieces of their limbs, which then re-grow into new creatures. These each have the same identity of the orc from whom they are chopped, so they're immediately viciously rivalrous with that orc. That way you squeeze out sexual love and familial affection. Maybe orcs force other orcs to breed because the process is so miserably painful.

Another interesting idea, but rather arbitrary, no? There’s no evidence to support this guess, is there? And if you go with a solution like this, how do you account for the fact that once an orc is dead and hacked up on the battlefield, he doesn’t come back to life, or his various hacked off parts grow each into a new orc? I suppose you would suggest there’s something specific to the “rite” that accomplishes this, but then that’s even more arbitrary, isn’t it?

For myself, I think I still prefer the idea of conventional breeding, but in a much more animal fashion (sex without love, and kicking their spawn out into the world with no nurturing or protection to speak of).

Why do you never see female orcs or baby-orcs? Assuming the first orcs (at least) came from perverted elves, I don’t think there’s any reason to assume Morgoth would have discriminated against twisting female elves, when he could get his hands on them, so there seems every likelihood there must have been some. But like the dwarves, they could have been very few (and therefore, if one assumes conventional breeding, very valuable as breeders). Why don’t we see them? If they are scarce and important as breeders, they’re probably hidden away deep in the mountains; they would hardly venture forth to war, given the odds of survival. Why don’t we see the babies? Again, my guess would be that the really young ones are still back up in the deep places (in the orc daycare, of course!), but if they reach physical maturity at an accelerated rate, then we probably are seeing young ones a lot of the time. Maybe even some of the so-called “smaller breeds” are not actually distinct breeds at all; rather, perhaps they’re “adolescents.”

Interesting discussion!

Emma Goldman said...

Great analyses, campers! I'd have to add that I think part of the lack of female orcs has to do with the overall lack of females in the trilogy (and The Hobbit, of course). I don't want to get all psychological or anything, not least because I don't know all that much about Tolkien as a person, but it's not all that surprising to me that femailes aren't that much in evidence, given the time/place Tolkien wrote and given the importance of primarily male pursuits (especially war) in his life. At least in the US, WW1, rather than WW2, was the beginning of major, society-wide question of "women's place." Thanks for coming by!

Monk said...

This is a great topic, and one that I actually have an opinion on. Granted, it's not backed up by official canon, but it's something I've thought about.

In my mind-- privately, while reading the books-- I have always thought of orcs as reincarnating, similarly to elves. I don't have any good explanation for this, and could not describe the process. It's probably the video game obsessed part of my mind that allows me to imagine creatures "respawning" without questioning the process at all.

But, you have to look at the rate at which orcs "spawned" in the books. They mostly vanish for long periods, and then, over relatively short periods, run rampant. This tells me that a) they are creatures that breed ferociously when allowed, like rabbits, or b) their breeding (or production) is linked directly to their "master"... Morgoth or Sauron.

When an elf dies, the soul returns to Valinor-- or it should. Maybe, through some abomination, Morgoth found a way to prevent that... to bind the soul in Middle Earth, using nothing but the same strength of will he used to direct his followers to do his work. Or maybe he has ruined the spirit so completely that Mandos rejects it.

Like I said, I don't have any evidence to support that-- it's just how I always imagined it.

I don't have any problem with the breeding theory either. To me, the conversations between Shagrat and Gorbag always sounded very human. They start off sounding very much like two men on a job-- even at the end, their "issues" (heh) very much resemble human issues that we all go through on a difficult job. Because of that, I don't have any problem imagining Shagrat or Gorbag as fathers (gasp! I know. But just read those passages, and imagine tham as stressed-out fathers. It sounds almost natural).

Anyway, good topic.

Michael said...

[re-posted by me as a workaround the Blogger registration rule]

I first read Tolkein, thanks to an English neighbor, when I was in my very early teens--possibly as young as twelve. In my minds' eye, orcs were somewhat like the warriors who arose from the dragon's teeth of Greek legend. I think I had seen Ray Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts after I'd read The Hobbit, but before I tackled the Lord of the Rings.

I did think that the orc "birth" or "creation" scene at Isengard in Jackson's films it did resonate with my childhood sense of orcs being some sort of cloned or manufactured beings.

**********
Liz Ditz

blog: http://lizditz.typepad.com

de hammo said...

The only free-willed creatures in Middle-earth are Valar and Maiar ("powers," angelic/demonic spirits), the "Children of Iluvatar" (elves and men), and a kind of special dispensation given to the dwarves, ents, and apparently the eagles.

The only real free-willed creatures in this world are, in fact, Men. Only their destiny is not predetermined and their free will and unknown destiny after Death are the gifts from Iluvatar to them. That freedom to create their own destiny makes them the object of great envy and hate in the mind of Melkor/Morgoth.
The creature can be free willed only if its destiny is not previously determined and known to someone/something. Everything on the Middle-earth and Middle-earth itself are the product of the Eru or they are inspired by The Flame Imperishable (as, for instance, Dwarves, Aule did created them but real fea was given to them by Iluvatar). Even Melkor's attempts to bring the discord in the melody goes to the glory of the Iluvatar ('...And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite.' Silm., Unvin paperbacks, 1986, p. 17, also, see page 20, when Iluvatar spokes to Ulmo).

Men are such creatures and, as a special race of Men, Hobbits, free-willed and not predetermined.

Rosa Nutkana said...

Some online pen-friends and I discussed the matter among ourselves (after reading your post) and a consensus was reached that, if one is more willing to face the all-to biological "ick" (the which we agreed Tolkien almost certainly was not), it's entirely possible to answer the "where are all the female orcs"?

While my own offering was perhaps the most evil, the winner was Karl's (aka "selenite"):

"Maybe Tolkien's orcs breed like Larry Niven's Puppeteers--two adult orcs put gametes into a host animal, which then form larvae who eat their way out (cf wasps). That lets the host be any sex or species, including another orc. That also gives orcs a big incentive to keep climbing the pecking order. In this case there may be female orcs, but the difference is only visible at the chromosomal level."

Puts a whole new level of horror to Elrond's wife's "torment at the hands of the orcs," doesn't it?

Richard Reitz said...

I believe many readers get too wrapped up in the detail offered by Tolkien to correctly consider what his writings represent, (Can't see the forest for the ents.) Although men, elves and orcs are described as separate races, if they can interbreed, then they are truly just one species. (I've always thought that squinty eyed Bill Ferny had some orc in him.)

Further, if one regards Tolkiens legendarium (including the Lord of the Rings)as a modern reflection of northern tales and histories, then Tolkien's description of the orc race may be likened to ancient writers' descriptions of enemy tribes. Since history often belongs to the victor (or at least to the literate survivors), those enemy tribes were often vilified in evil and inhuman terms.

Let us reflect upon this historical description:

'[The king] found among his people certain witches ...Suspecting these women, he expelled them from the midst of his race and compelled them to wander in solitary exile afar from his army. There the unclean spirits, who beheld them as they wandered through the wilderness, bestowed their embraces upon them and begat this savage race, which dwelt at first in the swamps,--a stunted, foul and puny tribe, scarcely human, and having no language save one which bore but slight resemblance to human speech. This cruel tribe settled on the farther bank of the [southeastern] swamp. They were fond of hunting and had no skill in any other art. After they had grown to a nation, they disturbed the peace of neighboring races by theft and rapine.
[Eventually,] like a whirlwind of nations they swept across the great swamp . . . For by the terror of their features they inspired great fear in those whom perhaps they did not really surpass in war. They made their foes flee in horror because their swarthy aspect was fearful, and they had, if I may call it so, a sort of shapeless lump, not a head, with pin-holes rather than eyes. Their hardihood is evident in their wild appearance, and they are beings who are cruel to their children on the very day they are born. For they cut the cheeks of the males with a sword, so that before they receive the nourishment of milk they must learn to endure wounds. Hence they grow old beardless and their young men are without comeliness, because a face furrowed by the sword spoils by its scars the natural beauty of a beard. They are short in stature, quick in bodily movement, alert horsemen, broad shouldered, ready in the use of bow and arrow, and have firm-set necks which are ever erect in pride. Though they live in the form of men, they have the cruelty of wild beasts.'

Sound familiar? This is taken from Jordanes description of the Huns.

Mecandes said...

Excuse me if this sounds simplistic, but it has always seemed clear to me that orcs are what we would call in our modern world "clones."

Surely Morgoth took the genetic material of elves and warped it into orcs in the same way one can imagine a modern scientist messing around with human cloning. We can also easily imagine that modern scientists, in the not-to-distant future, will be able to pick-and-choose the desired traits in babies and/or clones... in this case, strength, aggression, etc. (You guys saw Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, right?)

The reason for the lack of females is twofold:

1) Males have the physical advantage -- the guy's breeding an army after all. (Not even our modern gender-inclusive society puts women on the front lines...)

2) Just imagine the mess you get into if you have families of orcs, with women and children to defend, feed, etc. Why add those problems to your army if you can create an army without 'em?

Surely, too, such clones can easily be understood in relation to your linguistic "animated corpses." (Do they have souls? etc.) While in Tolkien's day they may not have yet conceived of what we now call "cloning," and so he himself could not have used that term -- I still feel cloning is precisely what the professor was talking about when he tried to put the creation of orcs from the material of elves into words.

Austin said...

picture of zoroastrianism

Elbilin said...

Professor Drout, when I read your post regarding Breeding of yrch I must admit I found it quite intriguing. Being a big fan of Tolkien's works and a member of a fanatics website I felt I should post your writings there to allow the members (a lot of who are far more knowledgeable on the subject than I) a chance to discuss the points raised. If you wish to read the comments written the post can be found, http://www.lotrplaza.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=222721&PID=6549259#6549259
I of course should point out credit for the writing was given to you. I hope you don't mind.

Elbilin said...

oops the link didn't show properly, okay here it is again, sorry for that.
http://www.lotrplaza.com/forum/
forum_posts.asp?TID=222721&PID
=6549259#6549259

Andrey said...

The clone ideas sounds plausible, so does an asexual spore-type mechanism a la Warhammer universe. Sporing would explain the large numbers of the orcs as you would only need one to reproduce. Orcs do vary in size, and perhaps we just never see the smallest ones.

dagon said...

We had orc females in my D&D setting (in the 80s) - they were substantially less intelligent (but could be pretty vicious), smaller with a swollen lower abdomen (they were assumed almost non-stop pregnant) and 6 or 8 teats. It was not surprising orcs went looking for human mates, they were buttugly.

64 said...

I think Orcs breed, as Uruk-hai are defined as orcs bred with men, so we must assume that orcs have sex organs, also it may be that whilst men are brutal and uncaring the females(out of instinct not love) look after the young until they can be sent off

Dagon said...

In our RPG setting, ages ago, we had three ways to beget new orcs;

(1) a spell. Most spellcasters were able to go to a place with mud, cast a spell, and over an hour of incantation, 'raise an orc' from the mud. These were all male, of adult age, and in all respects functional orcs of "a simple temperament". They existed indefinitely.

(2) breeding. Male Orcs can breed with anything. They'll happily breed with cattle, dogs, swine, ape, humans. This will produce colorful interbreeds but the blending of all these hybrid creatures will look amazingly - like orc. It is as if orc are the entropic state of lots of interbreeds (though some looked like mongrelmen).

(3) Female orcs. A female orc is non-intelligent, docile, fat and small. They have either six or eight nipples, and are in effect constantly pregnant. Female orcs are only borne one in ten normally but in times of extreme stress more females are born, and of a consequence replenish the race faster. They wean their young and do little else than lick them clean- and eat. Orc females are noncommunicative and tend to live in harems. Most don't even have a name and no orc knows for sure who was his mother. The speed of reproduction for orcs from a single mother can be as high as two litters per year, and the average litter numbers eight. A single orc female becomes fertile (and STINKS to anything but an orc when they do) at age eight, and is generally worn out at age twenty - hence an orc mother can bring over 100 orcs in the world.

Anonymous said...

tolkien never said how orcs bred ,but i highly dought they breed sexualy ,fore them to to raise an army that fast