When Tolkien created the Orcs, he unleashed upon the world a blighted race that embodied the worst aspects of ourselves; a race whose name became synonymous with cruelty and hate, with savage violence and genocidal fury. Slaves, they were. Foul servants of fallen gods and dark lords and wizards who had strayed from the light. But, an odd thing occurred: Orcs evolved beyond the scope of their creator. They grew and multiplied. Their origins and aspects changed; they infested dungeons beyond number, became the military backbone of ambitious princelings and sorcerers-who-would-be-kings, and even found their way into the Chaos-wracked depths of space. But always they remained lackeys. Single-minded minions. Sword-fodder beneath our contempt. And yet . . .
And yet, not long ago Wizards of the Coast sparked a furor when they announced that half-orcs would no longer be a core character race in the 4th edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Fans wanted them to stay; some even declared that no game could bear the D&D banner and not have half-orcs. Indeed, the past few years have seen a sort of Orcish renaissance burst upon the fiction scene: a US omnibus edition of Stan Nicholls’ Orcs, Morgan Howell’s Queen of the Orcs trilogy, RA Salvatore’s The Orc King. But, rather than the villainous beasts typified by Tolkien, these modern Orcs have been engineered into perfect exemplars of the Noble Savage.
Though I have a long-abiding love of Orcs, I find myself unable to accept them in this new heroic role. And what’s behind it? Why change their most basic nature? Is it to make them more palatable, to give them the same whitewashing that has turned vampires from bloodthirsty undead to teen sex symbols? Whatever the reason, Orcs have been stripped of their subservience and villainy, rehabilitated from their coarse and brigandish manner to become fantasy’s new barbarian archetype. Nicholls’ Orcish protagonist Stryke, leader of the Wolverines, is Gaiseric reborn, fighting the tyranny of an empire while trying to find safe haven for his people. And, if Stryke is Gaiseric, then Howell’s Kovok-mah is cut from the same cloth as Geronimo or Sitting Bull — close to the earth, plain-spoken, and ruthless in battle. Obould, Salvatore’s Orc King, wears the mantle of Temujin, an inimical Genghis Khan in the making.
While interesting characters all, in none of these do I recognize the DNA of Tolkien’s Orcs. Where is Grishnakh, with his serpentine voice and arms hanging nearly to the ground, or Shagrat, the captain of Cirith Ungol who longs for “the old times” when the big bosses did not hold sway? Where is quarrelsome Gorbag, quick-footed Snaga, or trusty Mauhur? Perhaps a sliver of proud Ugluk lurks in Obould’s heart, but not in the others. They are Orcs in name only, sadly bereft of the characteristics that made Tolkien’s timeless creation stand out. Steve Tompkins over at The Cimmerian said it best:
. . . to reconfigure them as an unlovely-but-arguably-racially-profiled warrior-race, unrestricted free agents looking for a destiny of their own is to risk losing the plot. It’s precisely the fact that they were gengineered in the hells beneath the halls of a Dark Lord – “And deep in their dark hearts the Orcs loathed the Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery” – the tension between slavery and sentience that characters like Gorbag and Shagrat evince, that renders them so compelling.
Wise words, and something to think about when, in the near future, I begin my own foray into Orc fiction.