This past weekend, Orcs were trending on Twitter, based on a tweet about how a description of them in Dungeons & Dragons was pretty racist. (Full disclosure: I haven’t played D&D, although I’ve come across it quite a bit in my study of mythology and fantasy.)
Arguments arose as to whether the idea of Orcs was rooted in racism, whether against a specific group of people or just in general. I don’t think we can dismiss the idea out of hand, although I also suspect Orcs and other fantastic beings who are pretty much always nasty and brutal might not be entirely consciously racist. But then, even today, the term “races” is used to describe different sorts of beings in fantasy, which in and of itself is problematic. After all, what even is a race? It’s basically an arbitrary categorization of people, sometimes based on genetics and other times on culture. When Europeans came up with the idea of Africans and Asians as separate races, based largely on skin color, there were value judgments inherent in that. This in turn led to ideas that are sometimes termed “scientific racism” despite not being scientific at all, where other races are thought to be significantly different than white people, perhaps less evolved and lacking normal human cognitive functions and morality. Of course, this was all utter nonsense, yet it still persists. Working in the realm of fantasy, where just about anything is possible, the idea of race becomes even more confusing. Are they different species, or really specialized sorts of humans? There isn’t a whole lot about generic fantasy dwarves, from the tradition in which Tolkien also wrote, that suggests they’re anything other than human, just humans who tend, on average, to be noticeably short, hardy, and hairy. That’s not to say that fantasy dwarves should be associated with people with dwarfism; it’s more the other way around, that “dwarfism” is a term comparing people with those symptoms to subterranean people from Norse mythology, which is hardly fair to either one.
For that matter, what is an orc? It was J.R.R. Tolkien who popularized the term, taking it from Beowulf, and hence from an Old English word meaning a demon or an ogre. D&D borrowed a lot from Tolkien, sometimes having to change the names to avoid copyrights, as with Halflings instead of Hobbits and Treants instead of Ents. Since Tolkien did not invent the word “orc,” D&D and other fantasy universes could use it. As Tolkien did, they also frequently associate orcs with goblins, making them either the same thing or a larger variety thereof. But then, goblins themselves can be interpreted in wildly different ways. Every sort of fantasy being can, but, as the Hungry Reader indicated on Twitter, even non-fantasy fans often have some idea of what dwarves, elves, ogres, and trolls are from fairy tales and such, while goblins and orcs are a little more vague. Tolkien once wrote in a letter, “The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human’ form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” While he does acknowledge that such ugliness is a relative matter, it’s still quite offensive. As with many aspects of his fantasy universe, he frequently changed his mind on the nature and origins of orcs, and other times he seems to have regarded them as essentially just the worst of humanity rather than any specific ethnicity. He was also known to have struggled with the notion of totally irredeemable people, as it didn’t fit with his religious beliefs, and his orcs had largely the same notions of right and wrong as his humans. The Brothers Hildebrandt appear to have been the first to show orcs as pig-men.
As Orcs generally have human-level intelligence, even if they ARE a separate biological species, it can be a problem to claim that they’re just inherently evil and have limited abilities for compassion, especially since these are accusations leveled by actual racists against their fellow humans. Tolkien is someone who consciously avoided some European prejudices of his time, but still allowed others to seep in. I mean, his Dwarves were supposed to be sort of Jewish, but he apparently didn’t think making them naturally greedy was insulting. And his Elves, who were supposed to represent the best of humanity, were tall, thin, and fair-skinned, very Eurocentric.
Granted, Elves are Scandinavian in origin, but that doesn’t mean modern authors had to consider these traits desirable. The quoted description says that D&D orcs are less evil than gnolls, but since D&D gnolls are basically hyena people (although they’re pretty different in the source material), can the concept of evil even apply to them? People generally wouldn’t consider an actual hyena evil for killing; it’s their nature and something they have to do to survive. Are gnolls associated with real-life negative stereotypes, though? I can’t say as I know. But even that is complicated when a lot of fantasy settings have animals who are not human at all but can talk like people and have at least some sense of human morality. Orcs can interbreed with humans, and one of Tolkien’s ideas for the origin of Orcs (he had several throughout his lifetime) was that they were fallen Elves.
Not that any of that is necessarily even relevant to anything, as fantasy and mythology contain a lot of biological hand-waving and can fall back on gods as an excuse for just about anything. In Middle-Earth, God just really liked the appearance of humans, and seems to have made anything that looked more or less human biologically compatible. I’ve seen some indications that D&D orcs are now often described as products of a violent culture, something that’s certainly true of many otherwise quite intelligence and rational humans. They’re sometimes considered more of a proud warrior culture like the Klingons from Star Trek, who initially were both pretty much always villainous and inspired by real people (the Russians), but had their warlike nature sometimes spun into more of a positive or neutral thing later on.
Picture by Rackun
But then, the warrior race idea is itself racist and not particularly realistic. And D&D has its morality table that doesn’t take into account all the intricacies of psychology and morality, but then, they DID have to simplify things for the sake of the game. It’s mostly when certain moral rankings are ascribed to entire species or ethnic groups that it takes on a more prejudicial aspect; and there’s certainly precedent for this in fantasy universes that were based entirely on human imagination rather than rolling dice. As a fantasy enthusiast, I wish these mythical creations DIDN’T relate to real-life prejudice, but sometimes they do.