76

There are a bunch of theories about the true origin of the orcs. Tolkien tried out a few different origins for his Orcs throughout his life but died before he could fully revise The Silmarillion with his final view on their origins and nature.

There is a list of origins proposed by Tolkien(source):

  1. Made of stone and slime through the sorcery of Morgoth;
  2. East Elves, where The Silmarillion contains a suggestion that Orcs are descended from East Elves captured by Melkor, their minds and bodies distorted and corrupted.
  3. Sentient beasts, another of Tolkien's theories proposes that Orcs may have begun as soulless animals of vaguely humanoid shapes, empowered by the will of the Dark Lord (Morgoth) and learning language only as parrots do.
  4. Fallen Maiar, there are hints in the History of Middle-earth series of books, (especially in Morgoth's Ring in the section "Myths Transformed"), that some Orc leaders, such as the First Age's Boldog, or the Great Goblin encountered by Bilbo and the Dwarves, may in fact have been fallen Maiar which had taken Orc form.
  5. Corrupted Men, while Tolkien at some point saw all Orcs as descended from the original corrupted and tortured Elves, later comments of his indicate, according to Christopher Tolkien in Morgoth's Ring "Myths Transformed" text X, that he began to feel uncomfortable with this theory. At about the same time he removed the references to the Thrall-Ñoldorin, he also began searching for a new origin for the Orcs. It seems Tolkien wanted to change the origin of the Orcs to make them corrupted and twisted Humans.
  6. A mix of corrupted Elves and Men, A late idea of Tolkien seems to be that Orcs (or Orks, showing the late spelling change) had a mixed origin of Elves and Men.
  7. Some cross-bred with Men, Tolkien also suggested that Men were cross-bred with Orcs under Morgoth's lieutenant, Sauron (and possibly under Morgoth himself). The process was later repeated during the War of the Ring by Saruman. This possibly refers to the way the Uruk-hai and the Half-Orcs were created, in The Lord of the Rings.

Of all these theories, which is the most accepted, and which did Tolkien agree with the most? I always thought that orcs were made of East Elves, as explained in The Lord of The Rings, but the story goes beyond this, there are the stories in many other books that explain different things.

What can you tell me about this?

  • 17
    Define "real" in the context of a fictional work. – Michael Borgwardt Nov 12 '12 at 12:51
  • 34
    If Tolkien himself didn't settle on one, what makes you think there's a "real" answer? – Kevin Nov 12 '12 at 14:26
  • 4
    I don't know if there is a "real" answer, that's why I'm asking. I just want to know which theory is most accepted, and if it's not, why? Also, which theory Tolkien himself agreed the most. – rogcg Nov 12 '12 at 16:18
  • 6
    “Tolkien... died before he could fully revise The Silmarillion with his final view on their origins and nature”. But if we upvote this question enough, maybe his ghost will come back and explain it to us. – Paul D. Waite May 30 '14 at 9:14
  • 5
    upvoted.. now waiting for the ghost to arrive.. – RicoRicochet Jun 4 '15 at 10:07
50

Perhaps the best answer is why do we need to define Orcs as having a single origin? It is possible that all of these answers are correct or none of them are. Tolkien may have decided there may have simply been a number of ways Orcs came into existence. From purely a scientific point of view, there have been at least three different hominid species to have come into existence on Earth, why would there be only one way to make an Orc on Middle-earth? In fact, all of your definitions could explain why there were so many different kinds of demi-human life on Middle-Earth.

Consider:

  • No being but Ilúvatar could truly bring anything to life. The Dwarves were a gift to Aule, who wanted to make life but could not, and he was a Valar. After crafting them only Ilúvatar could give them life.

  • Morgoth wanted to make life and he was the second most powerful of the Valar. Since he could not, it was rumored he transformed the Elves into the First Orcs. Seeing how he eventually created an entire army to wage war against the Valar, he spent the bulk of his time re-crafting Life to serve as his agents.

  • There is no reason other Valar or Maiar could not have done the same thing, that is, corrupt a living being and turn it to a new and unsavory purpose à la the Uruk-hai Orcs.

Since there were also goblins and other demi-human life forms in Middle-earth, corrupting Life may have simply been making the best of a bad situation where Beings who were keen on making Life would have to corrupt what source material was available since creating new life was simply the province of the One primal deity of the Middle-earth universe.

  • 10
    "Since there were also goblins" -- 'goblin' was just another word for 'orc', mostly used in The Hobbit. – Kate Ebneter Nov 13 '12 at 5:40
  • 17
    Meh, I always got the impression (no, I have neither sources, nor the will to go find them) that the Goblins of the Misty Mountains (yes they're Orcs) were a different "breed" to Mordor Orcs. And while it's mostly used in the Hobbit, it's also used in The Mines of Moria . . . no I can't remember by who, yes I am a bad geek :( Also Given that Sarumans "tinkering" with Orcs created Half-Orcs and the Uruk-Hai, it's entirely possible Morgoth created original Orcs, and "others" tinkered with them afterwards, filling out the seemingly contradictory providence stories listed by the asker. – Binary Worrier Nov 13 '12 at 7:29
  • 7
    I thought that Morgoth was the most powerful Vala. – Brian Gordon Jan 16 '14 at 18:12
  • 3
    Melkor was definitely the most powerful Vala, though there is some question of whether that is true after his first imprisonment and his burning by the Silmarils. – Jerry Schirmer Sep 5 '14 at 22:06
  • 3
    @chepner It would seem not everyone agrees with your assessment: "Melkor The Quenya name for the great rebellious Vala, the beginning of evil, in his origin the mightiest of the Ainur;"—Tolkeins Sr. and Jr. in "The Index of Names" from The Silmarillion. Emphasis added. – Lexible Nov 14 '14 at 7:04
22

Update: 29th May 2014

The late essay Of Dwarves and Men contains what seem to have been Tolkien's final thoughts on the matter. Christopher Tolkien dates this to at least 1969, based on strong evidence ("It was written on printed papers supplied by Allen and Unwin, of which the latest date is September 1969") and the bulk of it was printed in History of Middle-earth 12, but the relevant section was extracted to form part of the Drúedain material in Unfinished Tales.

An author's note (note 5) to this material states:

To the unfriendly who, not knowing them well, declared that Morgoth must have bred the Orcs from such a stock the Eldar answered: "Doubtless Morgoth, since he can make no living thing, bred Orcs from various kinds of Men, but the Drúedain must have escaped his Shadow; for their laughter and the laughter of Orcs are as different as is the light of Aman from the darkness of Angband." But some thought, nonetheless, that there had been a remote kinship, which accounted for their special enmity. Orcs and Drûgs each regarded the other as renegades.

This, of course, never made it into the main stories and was ommitted from the published Silmarillion because of that.

The only final interpretation that seems reasonable to me is that:

  • There is no known "true origin" for Orcs within Middle-earth; what we're presented with is a bunch of in-universe theories.
  • One of those theories is that Orcs were bred from corrupted Elves.
  • Another is that they were bred from Men.
  • And some believe that the Drúedain were a likely candidate.

Original answer - February 2013

There are a number of problems with all of the origin stories that may explain why Tolkien never settled on a definitive one himself.

If Orcs come from corrupted Elves, are they immortal within Arda? What happens when they are killed? Do they go to the Halls of Mandos, and can an Orc repent and be restored to his Elf-dom?

If Orcs come from Men, what of the timeline problems? How did Morgoth manage to breed so many in such a short time? You can see Tolkien grasping in this direction with some of his later revisions, moving the origin of Men further back, for example.

Problems with Morgoth not being able to create life himself have already been discussed, but at a stretch could be handled by the story of Morgoth disseminating his power throughout Arda.

Ultimately this was never resolved so there is no "true" origin. Orcs must be viewed in the same light as Tom Bombadil; one of the world's unknown and unknowable factors, and we must be content to leave it so.

  • If we consider Orcs to be corrupted Elves, then yes they are immortal. In addition, Orcs would share the Elven immunity to disease & starvation. But they do reproduce in the manner of Elves and humans. This neatly explains how Orcs could survive and be bred to great numbers in Moria and Angband. – RobertF Dec 16 '13 at 17:54
  • @RobertF It is not clear to me how corrupted elves (if orcs be such) are necessarily immortal (since their corruption manifestly involves biology), unless by "immortal" you mean their spirits reside with Mandos after death. – Lexible Nov 14 '14 at 7:09
  • 1
    The first orcs couldn't have been bred from men, since they existed before the awakening of mankind, at the exact moment of the first rise of the sun in the sky. – Joel Jul 29 '15 at 14:11
12

Here is an idea. If you remember from The Silmarillion, when Eru Illuvatar composed a theme in his music, Melkor attempted to always mess up the theme, thereby causing Eru to introduce another theme, which in turn was "messed up." After a time, Eru allowed the Valar to actually see the overall composition materialized, including the elements Melkor had introduced. The Orcs could have been Melkor's "attempts" realized when Eru materialized the composition. Iru did not have to directly create the Orcs, but only indirectly, as the Orcs were originally Melkor's idea. Eru Illuvatar was bound by his own self-imposed limits to materialize everything within the composition, whether good or evil.

11

THe problem wih orcs is that of hereditary evil. Morgoth might be able to corrupt individual elves to evil, but how does that evil then pass on, automatically, to the next generation? Is Morgoth powerful enough to introduce damnation to a species: a species born bad with no hope of redemption? That was Tolkien's dilemma, having introduced orcs into Arda. Morgoth cannot create new life (only puppets a la Aule's original dwarves), but - if he corrupts existing life forms how can he make them hereditarily evil through all generations thus putting them outwith Eru's grace? Tolkien's idea of making them into animals addresses this issue (no souls to begin with), but scarcely gels with the undoubted sentience and intelligence of the orcs we encounter in LOTR. Who knows how Tolkien would have resolved this? Maybe Orcs, left to themselves and without the false religions of Melkor and Sauron worship, would have come to Eru's grace in time, had they survived long into the fourth age?

  • 2
    If (some) orcs are corrupted elves, answers to the question of who fills the halls of Mandos become colorful. – Lexible Nov 14 '14 at 7:06
  • 2
    A few options: 1. it's m-a-g-i-c. 2. He can corrupt the children as well 3. Corruption can spread on its own, can't it? 4. Corrupted parents bring up corrupted children? – einpoklum Dec 28 '14 at 20:03
  • This is addressed at length in Shippey's J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, see chapter 3, "The Lord of the Rings (2): Concepts of Evil". – Charles Apr 4 '16 at 13:34
  • 1
    Middle-Earth has a considerable number of intelligent animals. – Alexey Romanov Jul 4 '18 at 7:50
5

The most accepted and solid theory is that Orcs come from Elves. That's what all the published novels say (as far as I remember). The other theories survived in some of Tolkien's notes, but he never made the effort of including them in any story, I think. However, I don't see any reason for rejecting the other theories alltogether. They "could" be true, why not? Except for the theory that puts men as the origin of the first orcs. That's completely impossible in the version of the story that survived, because when men awoke there was already plenty of orcs.

4

I don't believe orcs were corrupted elves although it is ambiguous;for although Tolkien states in a letter (Rhona Beare 1954) that 'trees may go bad as in the Old Forest;Elves may turn into Orcs and if this required the special perversion of Morgoth, still Elves themselves could do evil deeds', in another letter (Peter Hastings 1954) he quotes LOTR Chapt I, Book VI '(the Shadow) cannot make real life of its own. I don't think it gave life to the Orcs, it only twisted them and ruined them'. And earlier in the same letter he specifically defines Orcs as a race of 'rational incarnate creatures' and quotes Treebeard's statement that Morgoth did not 'create' them but made them in counterfeit of certain creatures pre-existing'. In other words, Orcs need not be corrupted from the Elvish race (at least not solely);there were plenty of humanoids available for Morgoth to give them their demonic shape.

  • If you're intending to quote from another source, you should reference (or link) to that source – Valorum Nov 16 '14 at 22:39
2

During the first war between elfs and orcs, orcs managed to win a couple of time, and I think Tolkien made it clear that elfs were superior to human in most ways. So maybe Morgoth's corrupted elfs were a strong race of Orcs who could fight elfs, and later he corrupted men to create a lower race of Orc. Then the two races could have been crossed (or not) and allowed different army corps and one common race. And we can imagine that the snaga are corrupted hobbits ! :)

protected by Community Nov 29 '14 at 23:32

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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