In the moral universe Tolkien created, good and evil, at least on the surface, appear fairly cut and dry. Races like Hobbits and Men (at least certain types of them) are unequivocally good, while races like Orcs, Trolls, and the lesser types of men are transparently evil. Anyone who has read his work with any level of attention to detail and depth, however, soon realizes that these moral divisions quickly break down; Gollum was in origin a Hobbit, and even many of the much-vaunted Numenoreans fell under the sway and influence of evil. But what of the Orcs, those seemingly utterly dispensable minions of both Morgoth and Sauron that periodically emerge to scourge the rest of Middle-earth’s inhabitants? Can anything even remotely redeeming or laudatory be said of them?
I would like to argue that it can.
For one thing, we must remember the origins of these terrible creatures. The Silmarillion suggests that the Orcs were once Elves, taken by Morgoth and tortured until they became something utterly alien to their original natures. When one considers the extraordinary physical and spiritual agony these Elves must have endured in order to produce the twisted, baneful creatures that we meet several times in the various tales of Middle-earth, one cannot help but feel at least a pang of sorrow and remorse that creatures as fair and beautiful (if often prideful and stubborn) as the Elves should be turned so thoroughly to evil and destruction.
Even though Orcs are cruel and seemingly immoral, hating all things (including, it would seem, themselves), they are not always obedient, nor indeed loyal, to the dark powers that constantly command them (usually through a form of intimidation and the threat of physical violence and pain). Take, for example, the conversation between Shagrat and Gorbag in The Two Towers. It quickly becomes clear that these two Orcs, at least, do not wish to be in service to Sauron, for they broach the subject of one day setting up on their own, out of the control and out of the reach of those who have so consistently dominated them and made their lives a misery. While they will, it is suggested, maintain their Orcish ways, plundering and pillaging those around them, there is something in this particular passage that speaks of a desire to escape from the bonds set about them, that they do not, necessarily, enjoy being evil (though they clearly enjoy the idea of doing evil and violent things). While they are clearly unrepentantly evil, it is not clear that they are, necessarily, irredeemably so.
Of course, one cannot ignore the fact that, with a few exceptions, the Orcs are rarely given anything remotely resembling character development. Yet even this, I think, contributes to the reader’s understanding of them as a race victimized and abandoned by those who created them and continues to exploit their labours (which, of course, are not at all appreciated). In one of his letters, Tolkien referred to them as the rank and file (a clear echo of his own experience in the trenches of World War I), suggesting to me at least that he intended the reader to view them with at least something of a sympathetic eye. These are creatures, it seems, whose lives have no value and whose deaths (unlike those of Elves, Men, and Dwarves) receive no marker nor memorial from either their own side nor their enemies.
Some of this even bleeds over into Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, particularly in The Fellowship of the Ring. Saruman, the traitor, asks his Uruk-hai henchman Lurtz whether he knows how the Orcs first came into being. He notes that they were taken, tortured and mutilated, and rendered into a ruined and terrible form of life. Indeed, Jackson’s adaptation does an excellent job of showing us the squalour and agony from which the Orcs (or at least this particular breed) are created.
Whatever else one can say about the Orcs, these few vignettes do allow us to see that they are more complex than many have them credit for being. All of this, of course, raises significant questions about nature and about just how much sympathy we as readers are supposed to have for the alleged nature of these creatures. I know that I, at least, am moved to at least some measure of…pity?…understanding?…empathy?…I can’t quite decide how to classify my emotions. The Orcs are, in a way, the abject of Tolkien’s universe, the castoff and the refuse that has to exist in order for the moral order to make sense. As with most cases of abjection, however, they evoke a complex and often contradictory range of emotional responses from readers, myself included. But then, it is precisely moral complexity and questions of agency that Tolkien’s work always creates, and that is definitely a good thing.