In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring the Fellowship encounters many Orcs (or goblins) living in the Mines of Moria. In The Hobbit our heroes encounter a tribe of goblins inhabiting caves under the Misty Mountains. And in The Silmarillion, Morgoth raises vast armies of Orcs (and other creatures) in the dungeons of Angband.

How could Orcs survive in subterranean settings for long periods of time? Is there any evidence from Tolkien's works, or are we left to speculate?

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    What specifically puzzles you about Orcish subterranean life? Scarcity of food sources? Lack of sunlight? The cost of renting a nice cave in the Misty Mountains? :P
    – Andres F.
    Commented Oct 18, 2013 at 21:37
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    Who says they spend all of their time underground? They probably had raiding parties, they may have had some degree of farming, foraging and fishing to keep such large numbers fed. Being found underground and living exclusively underground are entirely two different things. I suspect they came above ground in quite a few areas, since Gandalf mentioned certain regions were known for their orc activity. I think this is one of those things we as readers, have to work out for ourselves, since Tolkien rarely makes mention of such things. Commented Oct 18, 2013 at 21:45
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    So they conjured their food, is that the supposition? How exactly do you feed thousands if you don't fish, forage, filch, farm or fight for a meal? Don't care if you didn't see it in the movie or read about it in the book, somebody was engaged in more than one of these activities to feed thousands. "It was called Lord of the Rings" not "Farms of the Orc Tribes" after all. No one cared how they fed all of those orcs... Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 0:26
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    Sauron's orcs (i.e. all but Saruman's Uruk-hai) were actually intolerant of the sun so there's not really anywhere they could have lived besides underground.
    – Kevin
    Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 3:24
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    Jokes aside, I think this is overthinking it. Actually @b_jonas' comment rings true: Orcs for Tolkien are merely a foil for the good guys. They don't seem capable of actual cooperation or culture; without an evil intelligence such as Morgoth's or Sauron's pushing them, they die off. It's not unlikely that most food is provided by the Dark Lord, and that when they cannot find it, they resort to cannibalism and eventually die off.
    – Andres F.
    Commented Oct 19, 2013 at 20:02

2 Answers 2


In order to survive, we're going to assume 3 necessities: food, shelter and reproduction. I'll deal with these in reverse, since it's convenient to leave the biggest issue - food - till last.

For reproduction, we know from the Silmarillion (chapter 3) that:

the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Iluvatar

From that we can deduce that there are Orc-wives, Orc-babies and Orc-nurseries, and it's probably best to leave it at that.

For shelter, the subterranean settings you're asking about cover that sufficiently well enough, so we'll pass on to food. What can we find out about food?

In RotK (book 6 chapter 2) we find the following:

Neither he nor Frodo knew anything of the great slave-worked fields away south in this wide realm, beyond the fumes of the Mountain by the dark sad waters of Lake Nurnen; nor of the great roads that ran away east and south to tributary lands, from which the soldiers of the Tower brought long waggon-trains of goods and booty and fresh slaves.

OK, so this is in reference to Mordor itself, not the Misty Mountains, but it does establish (1) that the Dark Lord's soldiers need food, (2) a means by which they get it in one location, and (3) a network of communication and commerce (of a sort).

Looking at the Silmarillion again, this time chapter 10, we find this:

the Orcs came down upon either side of Menegroth, and from camps in the east between Celon and Gelion, and west in the plains between Sirion and Narog, they plundered far and wide

An obvious question here is: "what are they plundering?" and even though Tolkien doesn't say so explicitly, we can imagine that food is included here.

It doesn't seem necessary to pull out more quotes; here we have 3 examples of ways that Orcs can get food to survive: slave-farms, tribute/commerce and plundering/raiding. It shouldn't be too much of a leap of imagination to think of other Orc strongholds - in Moria or Mount Gundabad, say - engaging in similar practices.

  • Thanks for posting. I'll give you the answer for depth of research, although there are still lingering questions. E.g., during the 400 yrs prior to the Dagor Bragollach during the Siege of Angband, Angband was kept under close guard by the Nolder, so raiding by Orcs wasn't happening. Angband was far to the north, too cold & barren for growing food. In the prior battle, Dagor Aglareb, all of the Orcs Morgoth sent south were slain. Maybe Morgoth had vast stores of food in Angband? Or else via magic Orcs live & reproduce without food, sort of a perpetual motion machine.
    – RobertF
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 16:58
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    There were plenty of raids during the Siege of Angband: "war never wholly ceased in all that time of the Siege, for Morgoth devised new evils, and ever and anon he would make trial of his enemies"; the first issuing of Glaurung and the battle Haleth had with Orcs were both during the Siege, and even Finrod first thinks that he's found an Orc raiding party when he comes across Beor and co.
    – user8719
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 17:42
  • Ok makes sense, thanks for correction.
    – RobertF
    Commented Oct 21, 2013 at 18:07
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    The Siege of Angband didn't cut off the fortress entirely - there could have been passes to the east across the mountains. I believe that there is even some mention of agents of Morgoth working among the men as they came west. and diverting them. Now, this doesn't say that there were Orc farmlands and roads carrying convoys of foodstuff in, either. JRR wasn't going into details of Orcish ecology.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Oct 23, 2013 at 21:06
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    +1 | Pretty much as I suspected. Nice work in finding the references. My time in the military gave me the five F's and I recognize the Orcs had to be following them too. (fish, forage, filch, farm or fight) Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 3:12

I did find a few details from Tolkien's essays on Orcs in excerpts from Morgoth's Ring: The Later Silmarillion Part One, Volume 10 of the History of Middle Earth where he stated that "they needed food and drink, and rest." How much food, drink, and rest they required is anyone's guess. Perhaps not as much as humans if they were indeed supersoldiers bred by Morgoth from Elves.


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