Are there any clues in the books on how an Uruk-Hai was selected to be a Captain, or otherwise increased in rank, over any other Uruk soldier?

Were there fighting pits or some other method of identifying Uruk-Hai with superior leadership/fighting skills?

In the movies it seems the army was created in a matter of months, which seems a short time to select ranking soldiers based on a measurable quality.

  • 11
    Saruman bred them, so could be that he created alphas who were bigger and had better brains than the rest... or he just had them to sort it out. Finishing off the competitors would probably the best way to establish your leadership in a uruk-hai group...
    – user68762
    Dec 28, 2017 at 15:35
  • I suspect the best explanation we'll get in Jackson-verse is when Lurtz throttled the labourer orcs as soon as he was "born". This indicates that he's particularly bad tempered and therefore best suited to be the leader... it'll be interesting to see if any better answers pop up though!
    – Liath
    Dec 28, 2017 at 16:15
  • 1
    I thought it was via Klingon promotion (TV Tropes warning). IIRC there was leadership challenge when Hobbits were taken to Isengard. Dec 28, 2017 at 19:42
  • I think you answered your own question: "superior leadership/fighting skill". Any orc was estimating other orcs if they were looking stronger/tougher. If the other one looked weaker, kick and abuse him. If the other one looks stronger/tougher, bow your back, snarl (but not too loud) and find another weaker one who can be kicked. If a decision could not be made, it was time for a reasonable civilized discussion to clear up the situation (the loser choked on his own entrails). Rinse and repeat and you have a stable leadership. Dec 30, 2017 at 2:34

5 Answers 5


It is never made clear. The best we know from the books is that they (as a sub-race) are faster, smarter, stronger and larger than normal orcs.

Treebeard speculates that they were once Men or a hybrid between Orc and Man.

[Saruman] has taken up with foul folk, with the Orcs. Brm, hoom! Worse than that: he has been doing something to them; something dangerous. For these Isengarders are more like wicked Men. It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun; but Saruman's Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it. I wonder what he has done? Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men? That would be a black evil!'
The Two Towers: Book III - Chapter 4: Treebeard

Tolkien later reiterated the fact that Uruk-hai were greater than the other Orcs.

Related, no doubt, was the word uruk of the Black Speech, though this was applied as a rule only to the great soldier-orcs that at this time issued from Mordor and Isengard.
Appendix F: Of Other Races

(bold emphisis mine)

That is all Tolkien writes on the creation of the Uruk-hai. We know they are better than normal Orcs and both Mordor and Isengard created some. Basically all that we see in The Two Towers (2002) is a creative liberty. Though, to be clear, there are commanders in the books.

'Not our orders!' said one of the earlier voices. 'We have come all the way from the Mines to kill, and avenge our folk. I wish to kill, and then go back north.'

'Then you can wish again,' said the growling voice. 'I am Uglúk. I command. I return to Isengard by the shortest road.'
The Two Towers: Book III - Chapter 3: The Uruk-Hai

(bold emphisis mine)

That said, given what we know about the Uruk-hai, it can fairly safely assumed that they all had leadership potential (similar to a "normal" soldier in the US Marines or Israeli Special Forces), but the best of them became the commanders. Unfortunately we are never told how said commanders were chosen.

  • 1
    This answer misreads the question; OP isn't asking how the Uruk-hai were superior to normal orcs, but how captains of the Uruk-hai were chosen from among the other Uruk-hai. This answer therefore doesn't actually address the question at all, in my opinion.
    – TylerH
    Dec 29, 2017 at 15:15
  • 2
    @TylerH - What I'm actually doing is establishing that all we know is that Uruks are superior to normal Orcs. I then dump the only text we have on the creation of the Uruks. Since I'm claiming we are never told how commanders are chosen, I am showing, we are, in fact, never told.
    – amflare
    Dec 29, 2017 at 15:22
  • 3
    I disagree that the creation of the Uruk-hai would necessarily cover exhaustively any information that might also indicate how Uruk commanders were chosen. Nolimon's answer shows that there's more useful information elsewhere in the books.
    – TylerH
    Dec 29, 2017 at 15:27
  • 1
    Well, just as you feel my answer is off the mark, I feel that one is misinterpreting information. So I guess we will let the votes decide.
    – amflare
    Dec 29, 2017 at 15:33

You're asking how Captains were selected in the books, but Orcs were just like Elves and Men in their manner of reproduction in the books. They were not "farmed" or grown in vats, as we saw in the movies.

For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Iluvatar. (Silmarillion)

or in the specific case of some of Saruman's Orcs,

Saruman rediscovered this, or learned of it in lore, and in his lust for mastery committed this, his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile. (Letters)

There's no reason to believe anything other than that the strongest, meanest, and most cunning Orcs ended up Captains, and that they demonstrated their talents as they grew up over the course of many years. Presumably Sauron and Saruman also valued obedience.

In general, it's helpful to remember that Orcs were people, just an evil and fallen people. They otherwise did everything normal Men or Elves did: eat, drink, sleep, hunt, etc. We see only one aspect of Orc life.

There must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. (Letters)

  • 2
    Do we have any information on whether the Uruk Hai specifically are like normal orcs in terms of reproduction? Dec 29, 2017 at 18:19
  • 1
    @ToddWilcox: "Uruk-hai" just means "Orc-folk." There is probably nothing that spells it out explicitly for Saruman's Orcs, because this is just how the Tolkien universe works. People appear to be conceiving of Orcs as some kind of magical alien race, and that is not at all what they are - they're simply an evil race of 'people' (whether those people are Elves or Men or have some demonic strain in their breed.) Tolkien's references to modern-day people as Orcs were not wholly allegorical: he was saying that people were literally becoming Orcs; Orcishness is a debased spiritual state.
    – Shamshiel
    Dec 29, 2017 at 19:16
  • 1
    I understand that. We don't know exactly what Saruman did to make the Uruk-hai, and he is a wizard, so there is some room there for things to be quite different for them compared to other orcs. Dec 29, 2017 at 19:18
  • 2
    @ToddWilcox: There is no reason to believe anything other than what was stated in the book, that Saruman bred Orcs and Men. People want to assume that "bred" should somehow be understood as some kind of magic wand-waving instead of the prosaic meaning that applies in every other instance. "Saruman rediscovered this, or learned of it in lore, and in his lust for mastery committed this, his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile."
    – Shamshiel
    Dec 29, 2017 at 19:20
  • Sounds like the answer to the question in my first comment is actually "yes". Dec 29, 2017 at 19:26

Uglúk is called out as a particularly large orc, even for one of the Uruk-hai:

In the twilight he saw a large black orc, probably Uglúk, standing facing Grishnákh, a short crook-legged creature, very broad and with long arms that hung almost to the ground. Round them were many smaller goblins. Pippin supposed that these were the ones from the North. They had drawn their knives and swords, but hesitated to attack Uglúk.

Uglúk shouted, and a number of other Orcs nearly his own size ran up. Then suddenly, without warning, Uglúk sprang forwards, and with two swift strokes swept the heads off two of his opponents.

The Two Towers: The Uruk-Hai

Several other orc leaders are also noted as being quite large, among both Mordor's troops and the goblins of Moria:

Thereupon Azog came forth, and he was a great Orc with a huge iron-clad head

The Return of the King: Appendix A

But even as they retreated, and before Merry and Pippin had reached the stair outside, a huge orc-chieftain, almost man-high, clad in black mail from head to foot, leaped into the chamber; behind him his followers clustered in the doorway.

The Fellowship of the Ring: A Journey in the Dark

Out of the turret-door a smaller orc came flying. Behind him came Shagrat, a large orc with long arms that, as he ran crouching, reached to the ground.

The Return of the King: The Tower of Cirith Ungol

Considering how much of Uglúk's (and Shagrat's) discipline consists of threatening and killing rebellious underlings, this pattern is probably not a coincidence.


While not part of the original canon literature, this is one of the main premises explored in the Shadow of Mordor video game series.

The game takes place as a prequel to The Fellowship of the Ring, showing that the army was created some time in advance. During the events of the game, the Uruks constantly rise and fall in rank due to internal power struggles, success on their raiding missions, or by killing / being killed by Talion (who keeps coming back for more, thanks to Celebrimbor). It is shown that even a lowly grunt can rise through the ranks very rapidly, all the way up to War-Chief, if they prove themselves over their fellow Uruks.

  • 1
    +1 SoM; while excluding things that clearly exist for gameplay purposes, Shadow of Mordor did a surprisingly great job of creating a new story that fits well within the LotR universe. The only real complaint I have is the timeline is messed up/compressed. I was particularly impressed with the "wraith" concept, which is a really excellent execution of Tolkien's discussion of Elven wraiths/ghosts.
    – Shamshiel
    Dec 29, 2017 at 22:00

It was pretty clear in the movie. There was a scene where the new captain ate the old captain. He says "Meat is back on the menu, boys!" So it's clear that it's similar to how it works with wolves and lions: to take over, you eat the old boss.

  • 2
    The orc that was eaten was not an Uruk-hai. The Uruk-hai carrying Pippin and Merry met up with normal orcs on their way back to Orthanc. There's also no indication that the orc who complained about "having nothing but mangy bread for 3 stinkin' days" and challenging the Uruk to let them eat the Hobbits was a captain among the regular orc, or just one of the rank-and-file orcs.
    – TylerH
    Dec 29, 2017 at 15:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.