Consider the Orc
One of the most haunting moments in Amazon’s new show The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power comes in its fourth episode, when the mysterious Adar, whose origins and identity remain unclear, comes to tend a seriously injured orc. The orc and warlord lock eyes for a long moment before Adar, in an act of mercy, puts the wounded orc out of its suffering.
The sequence is arresting because, in that moment, the orc is seen—seen as a creature fundamentally akin to the other humanoid denizens of Middle-earth. It is glimpsed as a being capable of pain and gratitude and fear. And this is a note that no prior adaptation of Tolkien’s work has ever really struck: just consider the inhuman, flesh-eating marauders that populate Peter Jackson’s film universe.
But maybe it’s something that’s been there all along. Perhaps those prior films, depicting the orcs and their kin at their most vicious, were only part of the story. Have Tolkien’s readers and audiences, thrilled by the story’s intense battles and heroic victories, been missing something important all this time?
The seeming sentience of the orcs, when coupled with their casual consignment to suppression and destruction, has long been an uncomfortable undercurrent in Tolkien’s work. Indeed, one of the longer-running charges against Tolkien’s legendarium is that his world is fundamentally racist, in that its fantastical species map uncomfortably seamlessly onto real-world ethnic groupings. This argument isn’t something recently coined by “woke” scholars: decades ago, the late Jamaican philosopher Charles W. Mills penned “The Wretched of Middle-Earth: An Orkish Manifesto,” which has finally found its way into the Southern Journal of Philosophy.
Drawing on Tolkien’s professed intention to develop a mythic history of England—dots connected in Tolkien’s unpublished “Ælfwine of England”—Mills marshals an impressive range of textual and historical evidence to argue that, despite its fantastical setting, The Lord of the Rings amounts to a kind of apologetic for Nazi-style racial hierarchy:
[I]f we take Tolkien at his word and read [The Lord of the Rings] as a ‘true mythology’ of our own earth, then we will find that the text metamorphoses chillingly from a quaint otherworldly fantasy into a literal transcription of one of the most malignant ideologies of the past millennium: the racist “Aryan Myth,” which, in one form or another, would ultimately justify both the conquest and mass murder of the nonwhite world by Europeans, and the later Nazi genocide of Europeans themselves.
Mills goes on to explain how this myth plays out in the text. On the “good” side, the Rohirrim clearly reflect Nordic or Anglo-Saxon culture, with the Gondorians having a Mediterranean bent. The Dwarves are modeled on the Jewish people. And on the “bad” side of things, the “black men” of the deserts of Far Harad, who ride enormous Oliphaunts into battle, are clearly patterned on Africans, with the Easterlings of Rhûn having a distinctly Asiatic or Arabian cast. The Orcs, for their parts, are “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallowskinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” (Those are Tolkien’s words.) They are, in short, what modern critics would readily identify as Orientalist caricatures.
In conclusion, Mills charges Tolkien with “project[ing] onto a fantasy earth the central racist myth of the last millennium: that all human culture comes from the whitest of white peoples, speaking the whitest of languages, and that non-whites are a threat to civilization, culture, and humanity.” Mills’s analysis is bruising and sophisticated. And this much must be acknowledged: Mills puts forth more than enough evidence to demonstrate that real-world ethnopolitics did influence Middle-earth’s development. Facts, even uncomfortable ones, are facts.
Whether those ethnopolitics really track modern-day racial concerns, though, is a separate question. The motif of “Christian Europe against invaders from the East” might raise eyebrows today, but it can certainly be understood in terms of historical allusion rather than normative colonialist program. And like much criticism of this sort, the stridency of Mills’s larger argument tends to swamp the fact that questionable “ethnopolitical” elements are just a few notes in a much larger symphony.
In particular, Mills’s argument reflects a pervasive misunderstanding of Tolkien’s metaphysical vision. The central thesis of Mills’s article—upon which most of his strongest claims hang—is that Tolkien’s humanoid species can “be uncontroversially ranked into three categories: elves at the top; dwarves, hobbits, and men in the middle; and orcs at the bottom.” This tripartite framework, Mills reasons, neatly mirrors “the central racist myth of European thought: that humanity can be divided into three branches which trace their origins respectively to Noah’s three sons, Japheth, Shem, and Ham.” In this scheme, the Elves are the Aryans, to whom all others are inferior.
To the extent Mills views this scheme as the linchpin of Tolkien’s racial universe, he is clearly wrong, as a quick survey of Tolkien’s background assumptions demonstrates. Throughout his corpus, Tolkien clearly depicts Elves and Men as distinct and in a sense coequal in the divine plan. Both Elves and Men have a clear eschatological destiny: they will play roles in Dagor Dagorath, the Last Battle at the end of time, after which all things are made new. For their parts, the dwarves are independent creations of the Vala (saint, or demigod, or deva) Aulë, and their precise metaphysical standing in Tolkien’s cosmology is ambiguous. If the Jewish parallel holds, there are clearly supersessionist notes here, but let that pass. As for the hobbits, they are barely an afterthought in the broader legendarium, and so of relatively little symbolic significance.
In support of his argument that the Elves are Aryans, Mills charges Tolkien with depicting his elves as “intrinsically and apparently unchangeably good—no bad elves appear in [The Lord of the Rings].” But this too is incomplete: The Hobbit paints a decidedly unflattering portrait of the King of the Woodland Realm (Legolas’s father, Thranduil), and The Silmarillion contains plenty of examples of Elves behaving badly (the arrogant Fëanor and the lustful Eöl come to mind). For Tolkien, Elves and Men alike must struggle against the temptation to do wrong. There are no free passes.
In fairness to Mills, he appears to have written at a time when much of this background material had not yet made its way to the public—it took until Christopher Tolkien’s publication of The Silmarillion and the History of Middle-earth series for these texts to see the light. Nevertheless, they should suffice to disprove the “central racist myth” thesis.
As for the orcs, for Mills “[t]he orcs incarnate in their diabolically black bodies an unholy trinity: the threatening subordinate class within, the Islamic peril to the East, and the restless multitudes of the colonized South.” There is some limited support in Tolkien’s writings for this reading, as previously noted. That being said, if Tolkien’s statements in his legendarium are taken at their word, it would be more precise to say that Tolkien’s orcs are not really “humanoid,” but constructs of a sort, crude imitations of the Elves created by Eru (God).
Does this argument really work, though?
It isn’t necessary to fully embrace Mills’s framing to recognize that orcs are a problem for Tolkien. Indeed, they may be the problem, paralleling what scholars of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia have called the “Problem of Susan.” In The Last Battle, former protagonist Susan Pevensie is written off as “no longer a friend of Narnia” for the sin of growing too interested in fashion and society. It’s a development that’s hard to square with the novels’ insistence that “[o]nce a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia,” and their willingness to depict the redemption of a servant of the demonic god Tash. Is lipstick really an unforgivable sin?
For Tolkien, the corresponding “Problem of Orcs” lies in the fact that his novels depict rational creatures with natures so apparently deformed that they are incapable of receiving grace. But as a follower of the metaphysical theology of Thomas Aquinas (a point Jonathan McIntosh and Lisa Coutras have expounded in great depth), Tolkien should have found this a difficult position to defend. For Aquinas, a rational being
must, of necessity, desire all, whatsoever he desires, for the last end. . . . [W]hatever man desires, he desires it under the aspect of good. And if he desire it, not as his perfect good, which is the last end, he must, of necessity, desire it as tending to the perfect good, because the beginning of anything is always ordained to its completion. (Summa Theologiae II.1.6)
This is to say that God, as the absolute Good from whom all things proceed, is the ultimate object of rational desire. Hence, the desiring of rational beings for finite goods, however tainted by sin and vice, is also indirectly a genuine desire for the fullness that is God.
And Tolkien’s orcs are, indisputably, rational beings. In The Hobbit, Tolkien says of them that they “make no beautiful things, but . . . many clever ones,” that they “can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble,” and that “wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them.” They also possess an oral culture sufficient to remember the swords Orcrist and Glamdring, and to ascribe to them the names “Biter” and “Beater.” They even have some conception of honor: as Gimli explains in The Fellowship of the Ring, they “will often pursue foes for many. Leagues into the plain, if they have a fallen captain to avenge.”
In short, Tolkien’s orcs plainly exercise intellect and will in the pursuit of finite goods, and are even capable of responding to a higher moral summons under the right circumstances. They stand under Aquinas’s conception of rationality as much as Elves or Men do. And if the orcs are capable of seeking the good, and so eventually the Good as such, then how can they be exterminated so callously?
Surely, they are capable—at least in principle—of redemption.
Crafting a story that supplements a prior work without replicating it is a tricky feat. And back in 2019, HBO’s limited series Watchmen proved to be that rarest of things: a sequel that managed to retroactively elevate its predecessor by drawing out tensions latent in the source material, uncovering themes never developed by creator Alan Moore. Most memorably, the Watchmen series revealed that a major character—depicted as white in the original graphic novel—was actually Black, but posed as white in order to survive in racist surroundings. It’s a disclosure that feels fundamentally trueto the show’s source material, which broke new ground in its deconstruction and demythologization of the superhero genre: what you think you have seen is not the full truth.
The Rings of Power manages to do something similar. Adar’s compassion for a dying orc, culminating in a moment in which its “humanity” is seen, feels fundamentally true to the spirit of Tolkien’s world. If the treacherous Gollum survived because “[i]t was Pity that stayed [Bilbo’s] hand,” isn’t each and every orc capable of meriting such mercy?
The thought lingers, uneasily, casting a slight shadow over what came before while also rendering it more poignant. What did “Orc Number Three” dream about or hope for on the march to battle, before the Army of the Dead overran him? Or, as Gondorian captain Faramir put it in Jackson’s The Two Towers:
His sense of duty was no less than yours, I deem. You wonder what his name is. Where he came from. If he was really evil at heart. What lies or threats led him on this long march from home? And he’d not rather had stayed there, at peace. War will make corpses of us all.
The idealist philosopher Hegel once wrote that the true meaning of Greek tragedy lies not in the battle between good and evil, but in the clash between two rival, exclusive goods. And thinking differently about Tolkien’s orcs gives a decidedly tragic cast to his epic: on one side, the good of victory over invasion and despoliation; on the other, the good of (orcish) lives preserved, and damaged spirits perhaps made whole.
That is, no doubt, a different story from the one that millions have come to know and love. But it may be a better and truer one.