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This question is a follow-up to Were there any good Orcs [in Tolkien's fiction]?, where we agreed that Tolkien's Orcs cannot be good (if you disagree, please reply to that question).

This question is about other kinds of Orcs in fantasy fiction (arbitrary restriction: I'm ruling out videogames because I don't want answers from World of Warcraft. I will accept answers from literature, comics, TV shows, etc, with literature the preferred medium). Is there a fantasy world where Orcs are, if not good, at least not completely evil?

I can think of only one example, and it's mostly a minor exception to the rule: in Terry Pratchett's

Unseen Academicals, Mr. Nutt is secretly a "nice" Orc, struggling against his nature. This is a major plot point!

closed as not constructive by user56 Feb 27 '12 at 21:05

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  • This wouldn't meet your criteria being a video game series, but the Orcs in the Elder Scrolls universe are, like the other races of the empire, ethically neutral. – Travis Christian Feb 27 '12 at 15:59
  • I knew Orcs were getting the short end of the stick! – Major Stackings Feb 27 '12 at 17:04
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    Shame you're ruling out Warcraft. There is an interesting conflict going on there beween orcs who want to focus on conquest and war with the Alliance, like Garrosh Hellscream, and those like Thrall, who wants the orcs to return to their more peaceful shamanistic roots. – hammar Feb 27 '12 at 17:49
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    Also, one of the soundbites in Orcs Must Die is an orc who has just one day left before retirement... I almost feel bad for killing him :) – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Feb 27 '12 at 19:08
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    @AndresF. You can see what's wrong with list questions here: you have a list of examples (woefully incomplete). You do not have an answer. – user56 Feb 27 '12 at 21:21
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Kirill Yeskov's The Last Ringbearer turns Tolkien's account on its head (under the premise that "history is written by the victors") and portrays Mordor as a peaceful and prosperous civilization threatened by the barbaric Men and Elves.

DVK UPDATE:

  • To relate to the OP's question, one of the 2 main heroes (well, probably more of a major rank sidekick) is an Orocuen. What the invaders called "Orcs".

  • This book has an English translation, as far as I'm aware fully endorsed by the author.

    Translator's blog entry contains both the link to the translation, the link to the original Russian book, and a link to the translation of Yeskov's essay explaining the motivation for writing the book.

  • High level, the author (Dr. Kirill Yeskov) is a professional paleontologist, who usually only writes textbooks, with apocryphal fiction being a hobby (a very well executed hobby). His main 2 beefs with The Professor's work were:

    1. Arda, as described in great detail by Tolkien, makes absolutely no sense geographically based on plate tectonics.

    2. This was a myth/legend about a war, told by the winners. We all know how truthful THOSE tend to be.

  • The book is set in Arda, but is somewhat peripherally connected to LOTR. No hobbits, one brief mention of King Sauron (most of the book's action take place after the defeat of Mordor), and hugely unimportant The One Ring.

  • On a personal note, I'd highly recommend the book. Well worth the time spent.


... Of course, the nomadic Orocuens have always looked with scorn on their tribesmen who chose the life of a farmer or a craftsman: everybody knows that the only occupation worthy of a man is cattle-breeding; that is, if you don't count robbing caravans. This attitude, however, had never prevented them from regularly driving their flocks to the markets of Gorgoroth, where the sweet-talking Umbarian merchants who quickly came to dominate local trade would invariably fleece them. However, their main source of income had always been the export of rare metals, mined in abundance from the Ash Mountains by the stocky unsmiling Trolls – unequaled miners and smelters, who later monopolized all stonemasonry in the Oasis, too.

Life side by side had long trained the sons of all three peoples to eye the neighbors' daughters with more interest than their own, to make fun of each other (“An Orocuen, an Umbarian, and a Troll walk into a bar...”), and to defend the Ash Mountain passes and the Morannon against the Western barbarians together.

This, then, was the yeast on which Barad-Dur rose six centuries ago, that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle Earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic.

  • Awesome! This seems to build on Moorcock's criticism of Tolkien, right? Unfortunately Wikipedia states there's no English translation. – Andres F. Feb 27 '12 at 16:02
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    @AndresF. - both counts wrong. there IS an English translation (as of last year), a pretty decent one; and it's NOT based on Moorcock. ymarkov.livejournal.com/270570.html has links to translation of both the book, and Yeskov's article explaining WHY he wrote the book. – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 27 '12 at 16:51
  • Wow, thanks for the overhaul. I haven't read the book and couldn't find much on the plot. – Travis Christian Feb 27 '12 at 17:38
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    +1 The Last Ringbearer is an excellent novel. – William Jackson Feb 27 '12 at 18:24
  • @DVK I can't begin to say how grateful I am for you pointing me to the translation :) Thanks! – Andres F. Feb 27 '12 at 19:44
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Mary Gentle wrote a book called Grunts, which is about a band of Orcs that went out on their own after losing a "Great Battle" with the "good guys". They are still "bad" but the story puts them in a better light.

From Wikipedia:

As a satire of high fantasy the novel mocks most of the conventions of the genre from using traditional villainous races, orcs, as the protagonists, to having the noble characters have much less than noble motivations and secrets.

  • Never heard of this. I'll look for it. Thanks! – Andres F. Feb 27 '12 at 16:04
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    While the book is indeed hilarious and well worth reading, I should note that the "good" here is very, um, relative, to say the least. Or, to quote a memorable line from the book: "Pass me another elf, this one's split!" – Ilmari Karonen Feb 27 '12 at 18:02
  • @IlmariKaronen Haha, I didn't want to give it away too much, but yes you're right the "good" is definitely relative. It is more the fact that the book is written from a perspective that seems to favor the Orcs than from them being "good" that I answered with it. The Orcs are certainly on the bad side of good, or the good side of bad as it were...but how good can they really be and still call themselves orcs? – NominSim Feb 27 '12 at 18:44
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Stan Nicholls has written a whole series written from the perspective of an Orc warband enslaved by an evil queen. I met Stan once, he convinced me to buy his book, where he described Orcs as 'a noble warrior race who've suffered at the hands of black propagandists like Tolkien'...

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    Needs to include "fair warning: TVTropes link" =D – NateJ Sep 28 '17 at 15:42
  • @NateJ This whole site needs one of those... – PhilPursglove Sep 28 '17 at 16:27
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Larry Correia's Monster Hunter series has a tribe of Orcs that have been adopted by the good guys.

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  • Goblins is a long-running web comic that features, well, goblins. Not quite orcs, but pretty similar all in all. It tries to reverse the standard high-fantasy POV of "inherent evil" of goblinoids by starring a bunch of goblins that escaped after their village is torched by "good-aligned adventurers", and their struggle to justify their existence as non-stereotypical entities. I haven't read it in years.

  • Order of the Stick, another long-running web-comic that recently had a ridiculously successful fund-raiser, features goblins and hobgoblins as major enemies, servants of the lich Xykon. But if you read Start of Darkness, a prequel book that focuses on the origin stories of the major villains, you can see that Redcloak, the leader of the goblins, is perhaps evil, but certainly with redeeming qualities. He follows the path of the "Dark One", a violet-skinned goblin which united goblinhood and being brilliant enough to bring the opposing forces on the brink of defeat. The Dark One had ulterior motives, simply wanting that goblinoids have a place where they can live united; after trying to talk to the hostile leaders, he was assassinated. The veneration of the goblins for the Dark One promoted him to the status of a God; Redcloak is his priest and wears the Crimson Mantle, an artifact of the Dark One.

You see how he tried to live a peaceful life but was constantly pushed back, his family killed and many goblins massacred, until he felt he had to temporarily join Xykon's plan for world domination in order to secure a better future for goblinkind and let them join the rest of the civilized races as equals. ADDITION: He had a grudge against hobgoblins and callously used them as cannon fodder until one hobgoblin saved his life. After that he repented; Redcloak destroyed Azure City, the city of paladins who were responsible for slaughtering his family and converted it into Gobbotopia, a new country and sanctuary for all goblins.

  • +1 I had forgotten about Redcloak! I certainly like him more than Xykon :) – Andres F. Feb 27 '12 at 15:58
  • I also added more details on Redcloak's motivations under the spoiler-shield. – Avner Shahar-Kashtan Feb 27 '12 at 16:01
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I'm not sure if tabletop games would be adequate for your question, since you excluded videogames, but...

In Dungeons and Dragons "Eberron" setting, Orcs are one of the most deeply spiritual races and, while there are some barbaric brutes, that is the exception, not the rule.

Source.

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A couple of webcomics have already been mentioned, but let me add one more: Dominic Deegan: Oracle For Hire. Admittedly, the "orcs" in that comic bear little if any resemblance to the Tolkienesque archetype at all, save for the name and for having tusks and green skin, but they're easily one of the most sympathetically portrayed (and worst treated) groups of people in the story.

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Morgan Howell's Queen of the Orc's series is centered around Orcs that were a peaceful non-violent people before being enslaved into human armies. In contrast the human society was violent, brutal, and barbaric in behavior.

From the author's synopsis of the trilogy:

My second goal was to portray orcs as sympathetic characters. This idea runs counter to most fantasy writing. Usually orcs are the epitome of evil—a bloodthirsty race with no redeeming qualities. To explain why they are viewed this way, I imagined their position as similar to that of Native Americans in the nineteenth century. My orcs are a defeated race. As such, their conquerors malign them. The orcs buy a measure of peace through fighting in human armies. There, they are feared and exploited.

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No Warcraft, eh? I guess you're not that kind of Orc.

That aside, Shadowrun and Warhammer both feature orcs of different strokes. They also cover multiple mediums. Shadowrun Orcs are no different than anyone else, Warhammer Orcs are just indifferent...they do what they want, sort of like Animal House if it were run by a sentient fungus.

  • I admit it's arbitrary, but I'm just not interested in Orcs from videogames (of which there are hundreds if not thousands). I'd say tabletop Warhammer Orcs are evil, just different from Tolkien's Orcs -- they do want to fight and destroy everything on their path, and they don't even need an evil Sorcerer to tell them! Not familiar with Shadowrun Orcs, please elaborate to earn a +1 :) – Andres F. Feb 27 '12 at 16:28
  • I think you should reconsider Warcraft, it has sold millions of fiction books. However, Shadowrun is set in the not to distant future, magic has come back to the world and brought with it all the usual fantasy tropes. But essentially you have Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Trolls, etc., trying to make it in the city so to speak. It's kind of Men In Black'ish, you might find a Troll running a bakery or an Orc register jockey at your local Wal-mart. – user4963 Feb 27 '12 at 16:36

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