Since Tolkien was largely influenced by the Old English poem Beowulf, it should not be a surprise if his Orcs were at least partly derived from it.

Just as the Orcs are twisted, monstrous, naturally evil descendants of Elves, so is Grendel a twisted, monstrous, naturally evil descendant of Cain, and thus Adam. There is a similar motif of mundane beings being corrupted into monsters.

Furthermore, one descendent of Cain mentioned in the poem is referred to to as an orcneas.

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    Tolkien didn't just read Beowulf, he wrote a translation and an extensive commentary. I'd be astounded if his orcs weren't at least partially influenced by this work, generally cited as being the single most important work of Old English literature.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 15:38
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    He described Beowulf as being one of the key influences on his writing of The Hobbit; As for the rest of the tale it is, as the Habit suggests, derived from (previously digested) epic, mythology, and fairy-story – not, however, Victorian in authorship, as a rule to which George Macdonald is the chief exception. Beowulf is among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 15:41
  • This is not only a Q&A site, we also do literary analysis here!
    – Hans Olo
    Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 16:37
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    @Reginald O'Donoghue It should be pointed out that there is no official word within the Middle-earth legendarium about the origin of Orcs. In the Silmarilion the origin of the Orcs from captured Elves is presented as a theory, not as word of Eru. Tolkien considered many ideas about the Orcish origins without deciding on one. There should be a question about the origin on Orcs on this site. scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/26725/… Commented Jan 13, 2019 at 17:04
  • @Valorum - The "commentary" in that book is assembled by Christopher Tolkien, using excerpts from Tolkien's lecture notes to two different series of lectures. I'd say what's significant here is that Tolkien spent a few decades lecturing on Beowulf and authored what's arguably the most influential essay on it, not that his son posthumously edited some of his notes into a book.
    – ibid
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 17:03

2 Answers 2


Unlikely, since Tolkien was professor of Old English (and as Valorum commented, wrote a translation and commentary on Beowulf). The Old English word "orc" corresponds with Latin Orcus (deity of the Underworld), and synonymous with the Norse þyrs/ðyrs "ogre", so it has a different mythological origin than Grendel, and Tolkien would certainly have been aware of that.

Grendel is referred to in Beowulf as a sceadugenga – shadow-walker, night-goer. Orcs are mentioned apart from Grendel in lines 111–114 in Beowulf:

Þanon untydras ealle onƿocon
eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas
sƿylce gigantas þa ƿið gode ƿunnon
lange þrage he him ðæs lean forgeald

Thence all evil broods were born,
ogres and elves and orcs
—the giants also, who long time fought with God,
for which he gave them their reward

Tolkien's Orc origins are first described in The Tale of Tinúviel as "foul broodlings of Melkor who fared abroad doing his evil work".

See also: Origins of Orcs in Middle-Earth

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    Tolkien translated line 112 as "ogres and goblins and haunting shapes of hell" (on page 16 of the version published by CJRT, lines 90-91) Commented Jan 14, 2019 at 4:04

To quote from Tolkien's "Commentary accompanying the translation of Beowulf", published by Christopher Tolkien and based on Tolkien senior's lecture notes from the 1930s (as the Professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford, per Codosaur's answer):

90–1 haunting shapes of hell; *112 orcnéas

The O.E. word occurs only here. orc is found glossing Latin Orcus [Hell, Death]. neas seems certainly to be né-as, plural of the old (poetic) word 'dead body'. This appears also in né-fugol 'carrion bird'. Its original stem in Germanic was nawi-s: Gothic naus (plural naweis), Old Norse ná-r.

'Necromancy' will suggest something of the horrible associations of this word. I think that what is here meant is that terrible northern imagination to which I have ventured to give the name 'barrow-wights'. The 'undead'. Those dreadful creatures that inhabit tombs and mounds. They are not living: they have left humanity, but they are 'undead'. With superhuman strength and malice they can strangle men and rend them. Glámr in the story of Grettir the Strong is a well-known example. (Tolkien, Beowulf, A Translation and Commentary pp 163–4)

Based on these associations that Tolkien gives to orcnéas (at least at the time when this commentary was written), especially the explicit suggestion of barrow-wights, I think it is safe to say that while the word orcnéas, or even the latin orcus may have been a source for Tolkien's 'orc' (which he emphasises is not associated with Orca), the orcnéas as creatures are not themselves the prototypes for his Legendarium orcs.

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