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Tolkien popularized the orc as the generic fantasy bad guy. In his legendarium, orcs were corrupted elves and their limited descriptive text reflects this. They are described as "swart" and "sallow", suggesting their skins were dirty yellow to dark brown.

The popular modern conception of an orc, however, has green skin. This has been popularised by World of Warcraft but it certainly predates that game. Orcs have been Green in Warhammer since at least 2nd edition when I first played it.

I presume the green-ness of orcs started with Warhammer, but I can find no evidence for it. Does anyone know of any firmer proof of where the original green orcs came from, and why the change from Tolkien's conception was made?

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    Orcs have been green in Warcraft since the original version, but Warhammer is older. Green orcs seem to predate video-games (ones with good enough graphics that you could see the color, anyway) – Erik Sep 27 '17 at 9:11
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    @user14111 I always pictured orcs as being green, even when my only experience with them was from reading the Hobbit and LotR (even today I've no idea what Warhammer is). Not sure why. Maybe because the common perception of reptiles is as being green and scaly. (Are Tolkienian orcs described as reptilian?) – Rand al'Thor Sep 27 '17 at 13:36
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    @Randal'Thor No, they're not. – Bob Tway Sep 27 '17 at 13:39
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    Some orcs are specifically described as "black", such as in the fight between orcs when Merry and Pippin are captured:in the Two Towers "In the twilight he [i.e. Pippin] saw a large black Orc, probably Uglúk, standing facing Grishnákh" - though of course that use of the term could perhaps as easily just mean dark brown when describing skin colour. – Glen_b Sep 28 '17 at 1:19
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    The orcs went green after seeing the reaction of Fangorn Forest to the environmental damage they caused near Isengard when cutting down forests for Saruman. At the threat of future meetings with the trees of Fangorn, the orcs agreed to cease deforestation and reduce their carbon footprint, thus going green. – reirab Sep 29 '17 at 4:00
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Okay, I really didn't intend to end up answering my own question, but this really piqued my curiosity so I dug into it.

The answer - weirdly - may actually be Spider-Man.

There does not seem to be any association between goblins and the colour green before the early 1900's. Searching shows that the early examples are fairy stories, which peaked in the 1920's. Then the association goes quiet until the mid 60's, when Spider-Man first encountered the Green Goblin.

Spider-Man and his green antagonist were created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, who were both born in the 1920's. Given this is when "green goblin" fairy tales were at a peak, and, apparently, via a school study aid at that, this is where they may have first formed the association. That said, as user @DaveSherohman points out, the authors were also fond of alliterative names — see Peter Parker, Jonah Jameson and so on — so it may just be a co-incidence.

Tolkien originally labelled his antagonists as goblins, and continued to use a loose association with the word when he switched to "orcs". The popularity of his work took off in the mid-60's — exactly the time when Spider-Man was re-enforcing the association between goblins and green.

Comic art has obviously always been an important influence on gaming culture generally. And when gaming exploded onto the scene in the mid-70's, there seem to have been two independent sources of green orcs and goblins.

The first source of green orcs seems to have been Tolkien artist Tim Kirk. He contribured this picture, The Road to Minas Tirith, to a 1975 Tolkien calendar:

enter image description here

And has been consistent in his portrayal of orcs as green:

enter image description here

The second is D&D. Orcs and Goblins were in the original 1974 rules but were not given a physical description. In the 1977 Monster Manual, however, they were described thus:

Description: Orcs appear particularly disgusting because their coloration — brown or brownish green with a bluish sheen — highlights their pinkish snouts and ears. Their bristly hair is dark brown or black,

Green was popularised by a colour partly via this 1980 Grenadier miniatures set:

enter image description here

So by the time Games Workshop came on the scene with Warhammer in 1983, the greenness of orcs seems already to have been well-established in gaming.

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    The orcs in the picture with the whip look rather repitilian (they seem to have a scaly skin), which may have contributed to why the artist decided to make them green. – Flater Sep 27 '17 at 13:23
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    The name "the green goblin" implies that there are goblins of other colours and this one's distinctive feature is being green. – Cronax Sep 28 '17 at 9:36
  • What about the orcs as drawn in the Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit? Weren't they greenish? What year was that? – Todd Wilcox Sep 28 '17 at 11:33
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    @ToddWilcox if my Google fu was successful, they appear to be gray. – Paul Sep 28 '17 at 12:29
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    @ToddWilcox That was 1977, but to my eye they're gray, not green. Similar story for the 1978 Bakshi version of Lord of the Rings: the orcs vary in colour between scenes and do occasionally have a greenish tinge but are mostly grey/black. – Bob Tway Sep 28 '17 at 12:29
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Wikipedia states that some Orc traits, notably their green(ish) skin color were later additions to the Orc archetype that was established by Tolkien.

Edit: to prevent misinterpretation, I did not mean to imply that the green skin color was added at a later stage by Tolkien. But rather than it was added by another party, after Tolkien had established the initial archetype.

Tolkien's Orcs have been a major influence on fantasy fiction and games; they are the literary precursors of the Orcs (and similar races) of many different settings. The Orcs of Warhammer Fantasy, Dungeons & Dragons and other games most often differ from Tolkien's Orcs in that they are taller than Humans and usually have green or greyish-green skin rather than dark or yellowish skin. A notable exception are the Orcs in the most popular German role playing game The Dark Eye, which like Tolkien's orcs are small and dark, but also furry. The world of Hârn has an Orc-inspired race known as Gargun, whose name recalls the term gorgûn ("orcs") from the language of Tolkien's Druedain.

Link


I've seen some people claim that "sallow" is actually "yellow-green", but the Oxford Living Dictionaries contradicts this notion.

Sallow
(of a person's face or complexion) of an unhealthy yellow or pale brown colour.

Origin
Old English salo ‘dusky’, of Germanic origin; related to Old Norse sǫlr ‘yellow’, from a base meaning ‘dirty’.

Likely, people assume that sallow could also mean green because they are already aware of green orcs and they're trying to make the word fit with their idea of what constitutes an orc.


Though I cannot find an authoritative source to confirm it, I see the same answer used when the question of green skin color arises.

Its actually Warhammer and Warhammer 40k's fault, which started way back in 1983. The apocryphal story is that someone at Games Workshop accidentally painted their ork models green, the dev team decided they liked it and it rolled from there. Certainly the popularity of World of Warcraft helped bring the idea of green orcs to the forefront.

In actuality, orcs come in a variety of colors depending on their universe of origin as seen here. Some are green, some brown, some black, and even orange and blue Orcs are present.

Link

Whether this is the truth, or an often repeated myth, I cannot say.

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    Note that Blizzard's Warcraft universe started as GW's Warhammer with the trademarks rubbed off with a pencil-eraser (which connects Warhammer's green orcs to the green orcs of World of Warcraft, and hence common conception of orc colouring) – Yakk Sep 27 '17 at 12:59
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    @Yakk: Blizzard added a justification for the color (though you can argue it's a retcon). Green orcs are green because of their association with the fel corruption (link to Reddit thread that focuses on this). Some turned green immediately (if they chose the fel), others gradually (due to prolonged exposure to the fel around them) Earlier Orcs are shown to have a skin color ranging from brown to red. – Flater Sep 27 '17 at 13:05
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    That is in-fiction-universe. In real life, we have "Warcraft: Orcs & Humans" where orcs started out green (and "inspired" by warhammer), where orcs where already green. – Yakk Sep 27 '17 at 13:19
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    @Shane this answer predates mine. – Bob Tway Sep 27 '17 at 20:04
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    @MattThrower The fact that this answer was posted before yours doesn't change the fact that your answer proves this one wrong. Provably wrong answers should be down voted. Down votes without explanation has always seemed rude to me. – Shane Sep 29 '17 at 19:18
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I think it's likely that avoiding the perpetuation of racist stereotyping played a part in this. There's been plenty of debate as early as the first publication of the Lord of the Rings — see a citation on that on Tolkien Gateway, along with a reasonably nuanced discussion on the topic.

But the important thing is that it doesn't matter if Tolkien meant something bad; descriptions like "flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes" for quite good reason aren't acceptable today.

There's no need to debate any possible nuance in Tolkien's intent in making his heroic figures white-skinned and the evil race black (or "swart"). We can say "it was a different time", if you like. But, if you're going to do that today, you better be willing to seriously explore the consequences with eyes wide open. Turning instead to "green and pig-like" to signal otherness lets orcs just be monsters.

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    It was a "different time" - the Turks had ethnically cleansed the Armenians, the British had gassed in Iraq and the Nazis were slaughtering Jews while LotR was being written. Not to mention the Italians in Libya. Or other consequences of this biew of the sallow of the swart. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Oct 2 '17 at 8:30
  • Of course, that "green and pig-like" also gets turned on its head in both Warhammer and Warcraft. In both, orcs are rather intelligent, just culturally different from humans. In Warcraft, the "green" part comes from interaction with death magic (partially turning them into monsters, but not part of their nature), and their ethics, though somewhat warrior-like, are at many points shown to be superior to the humans of the series (mostly due to humans being, well, bastards). – Luaan Oct 2 '17 at 11:42
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    @Luaan Absolutely — and that's enabled by having an explicit distance from any direct analogy to different human peoples (whether or not the source-material orcs were intended to be any analogy at all). – mattdm Oct 2 '17 at 12:30
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    You might find the book Habits of Whiteness very interesting, especially since it includes a well-researched discussion on the history of how Orc's skin color changed from black to green. And thank you for posting this answer. After a long string of horrible answers about Orcs in this site (take a look at some of the answers to questions about how Orcs "reproduce"), it's refreshing to see an answer that states the obvious. – user91368 Oct 20 '17 at 22:31
  • If you're interested in learning more about portrayals of race in literature, I would recommend Habits of Whiteness. And of course, there's taxicrash.github.io/2016/05/11/tolkien-race, which I desperately need to rewrite to correct various errors, but also is a useful resource. – user91368 Oct 20 '17 at 22:40
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As to why, it may be the same reason that the Hulk is green. The first issues he was grey but that did not work well with the printing so they quickly changed him to green.

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    Can you provide a source that suggest this is the same for print books where words are used to describe characters? Or Video games? – Edlothiad Sep 29 '17 at 21:41
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I would have guessed that 8-bit video games would have contributed. Color palettes were often restricted to 16 or 64 colors (cf color tables).

Humans would have been yellow or white, orc color==brown would have been socially unacceptable, blue was too dark-- green is what's left.

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    Can you cite a source for "orc color==brown would have been socially unacceptable" I remember playing quite a few games that were something like pink humans v.s. brown aliens and so on. IN addition CGA graphics and the like had some interesting limitations. – coteyr Sep 28 '17 at 19:41
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    Interesting and plausible hypothesis, but lacking any evidence this hypothesis cannot make the grade as a theory (nor an acceptable StackExchange answer). Can you find any evidence of green orcs in 8-bit video games? – Quuxplusone Sep 29 '17 at 4:26
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    If brown were excluded in this context I would assume it was for pallet conflict reasons rather than social acceptability. Early video games were not in an era when judging by skin colour was as commonly held as unacceptable as it is now! Brown would have been used for parts of the environment (tree trunks, buildings) so brown characters would not have stood out well. Green would have that problem in low-level-leafy environments of course. – David Spillett Sep 29 '17 at 11:24
  • Green is not what is left. In Hero's Quest/Quest for Glory 1, the goblins had cyan/blue skin in the EGA version. However, in the VGA remake, interestingly, the skin was changed from cyan to green. – IllidanS4 wants Monica back Oct 2 '17 at 12:09
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I think the explanation is more disturbing. There is more than a bit of suspicion that Tolkien was quite a racist. "Good" characters are "caucasian" in his books, and "bad" characters are "dark skinned". He even pictured orcs as a "mongolian-type" race. Bad humans come "from the east", "black numenoreans" (yes, not "black" as a race, but still) come from the south, etc. Turning orcs green when shown in pictures or movies serves the purpose of using a color not identifiable with any real-world human-race (such as mongolian), lest the artist be called (quite accurately) racist. The same thing happened to Mr. Popo in Dragon Ball, when in some countries they painted him purple, because for some reason he could not be black. Orcs are green because no real-world human race is green, so no one can get offended by feeling they are being depicted as orcs. It's a fix to Tolkien's narrow views in race matters.

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    Yeah, about that... Tolkien was almost certainly not racist. – F1Krazy Sep 29 '17 at 9:34
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    Because no one would say he's not racist if he were, right? Tolkien saying he disliked allegory and he'd never used it an outright lie. It's plainly false, as it is beyond all doubt that one of the main themes in the LOTR is the anti-industrialism (see Saruman) and pro-simple-life (rural Engla...errr The Shire) allegory. If his argument against using racist allegories is that he never used allegories at all, he was lying through his teeth. – isilanes Sep 29 '17 at 10:27
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    @isilanes That's not the argument. It's one tiny part of the argument (on which I largely accept your opinion - I actually posted an answer about this on another SE site: literature.stackexchange.com/questions/1016/… ). But there are many more. Tolkien specifically disavowed "the pernicious and thoroughly unscientific race-doctrine" several times in his letters. See the link I posted. – Bob Tway Sep 29 '17 at 10:41
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    @isilanes Because no one would say he's not racist if he were, right? In that time period? Unlikely. Racism was viewed as pretty awesome, not some shameful secret. – Shane Sep 29 '17 at 19:27
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    I don't think people 50 years ago or more cared too much what color their characters were. You're wearing a modern set of glasses leading to an anachronistic view of this. – 15742 Sep 29 '17 at 23:03

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