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Orcs before Tolkien

A look at the early literary history of orcs.

Content note: racism.

Image: engraving of Orcus from Orlando Furioso.

The orc – generally a brutish, animalistic warrior, perhaps actually bred to act as cannon-fodder – is a staple of modern fantasy fiction. The popular depiction is owed overwhelmingly to the legendarium of J. R. R. Tolkien; whether particular authors follow his version closely, deviate from it, or deliberately subvert it, it remains their effective starting point. But did orcs spring fully formed from his admittedly fertile mind, or is there a longer history behind them?

In a note prefixed to later editions of The Hobbit, Tolkien clarified slightly (and confirmed that The Hobbit’s goblins and The Lord of the Rings’ Orcs were the same species):

Orc is not an English word. It occurs in one or two places but is usually translated goblin (or hobgoblin for the larger kinds). Orc is the hobbits’ form of the name given at that time to these creatures, and it is not connected at all with our orc, ork, applied to sea-animals of dolphin-kind.”

He says nothing here, however, about the actual origins of the word, or how he came to apply it to his goblins. (The depiction of the latter was in large part inspired by George MacDonald’s 1872 novel The Princess and the Goblin, whose chaotic, filthy, thieving antagonists are most recognisable in the Misty Mountains episode in chapters IV-VI of The Hobbit. The dehumanised, “trollish” Huns of William Morris’ The Roots of the Mountains (1889) contributed significantly to the Orcs’ more warlike aspects, which certainly have little to do with traditional goblin folklore. Tolkien's reference to Orcs resembling "the least lovely (to European eyes) Mongol-types" nods to Morris' depiction of the Huns.)

His direct inspiration for the use of the word was from two sources in Old English: a passing reference in Beowulf, and a Latin-to-Old English glossary. The former refers to the descendants of Cain as:

“… eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas

swylce gigantas…”

“Orcneas” are here paired with “elves” and a double reference to “giants”. Giants appear both as eotenas and as the Latinate gigantas. Eotenas is the Old English equivalent of the Norse Jötunn, Jötnar - the Frost Giants who were the main enemy of the Norse gods. It's also the origin of the Scots and Northern English term “ettin”, meaning a giant or ogre. Gigantas are referred to in the following line as “fighting with God”, as the Jötnar fought the Norse gods and the Greek Gigantes fought the Olympians in myth. (The role played by these mythic figures, particularly the Jötnar, also influenced Tolkien's portrayal of Orcs.) The word “ettin” crops up in Tolkien’s writings as an alternate name for Trolls; his Ents derive their name from another Old English term closely connected to eotenas, and similarly translated; while giants are sporadically referred to throughout the legendarium, and ogres (see below) were included in early versions of it.

The German philologist Frederick Klaeber argued in 1950 that orcneas here refers to revenants, “orc” deriving from the Roman death-god Orcus, and the “-neas” suffix meaning “corpse”. Certainly evil and aggressive reanimated corpses feature heavily in Germanic myth: and the glossary mentioned above does gloss Orcus as “orc” – but also as þyrs (“giant” or “troll”) or hel-deofol (“Hell-devil”). Klaeber had been writing about Beowulf for decades, and although this particular reference is too late to have influenced Tolkien, he did know Klaeber’s work well. It appears in context that “orc” may have been somewhat nebulous in its Old English meaning, aligning with a number of different supernatural menaces – but certainly a derivation from Orcus, and therefore an association with death, is highly likely.

The god Orcus is also considered the most likely origin of the French word “ogre”, which reached English via the fairy tales of Charles Perrault and the Baroness d’Aulnoy (both originally published in 1697). Several other etymologies have been proposed, but the fact that the recognised equivalent in Italian was orco is highly suggestive. But, by analogy with orca (a killer whale or similar marine animal), orco could still also mean a sea monster. Ludovico Ariosto, in his monumental romance Orlando Furioso (1516-32), uses the term both ways, in two deliberate evocations of Greek mythology. “The Orc” is a sea monster inspired by Ketos in the tale of Perseus and Andromeda, while “Orcus” (pictured) is a blind, cannibalistic giant resembling Polyphemos in The Odyssey. Giambattista Basile, a pioneer of the fairy tale form a few decades before Perrault and d'Aulnoy, used the Neapolitan dialect form uerco or huerco, and did perhaps more than any writer to establish the image of ugly, animalistic humanoids of large size, with a taste for human flesh. Except for the size, this description corresponds with Tolkien’s Orcs: is this a coincidence?

It might be. Tolkien had not read Ariosto and disliked most Renaissance romance, particularly its Southern European manifestations. He was certainly influenced at least indirectly by Basile, via the Brothers Grimm, a huge influence on both Tolkien’s scholarship and his fiction: one of their lesser known stories, The Skilful Huntsman, is echoed in Gandalf’s deception of the Trolls in The Hobbit, while Lúthien Tinúviel is effectively a self-rescuing Rapunzel. But Neapolitan was not one of his many languages, and he will not have read the original. Ariosto’s influence suffuses the works of subsequent English romancers, including Edmund Spenser, whom Tolkien had read and been significantly influenced by, and Samuel Holland, whose satirical Don Zara (1656) introduced the word “orke” to English, referring to a three-headed giant. Don Zara, however, is very obscure and there is no evidence that it was known to Tolkien; while Spenser's Orcus is simply the Roman god.

The Roman Orcus, much more than any fairy tale ogre, is the likely inspiration for the name of William Blake's Orc, a personification of freedom and rebellion who owes his first beginnings to Blake's instinctive sympathy with Milton's Satan. Blake's "Prophecy" poems (where Orc appears) are arguably the first truly mythopoeic works of the modern age, beginning the tradition which Tolkien popularised; and it is easy to find apparent echoes of them in The Silmarillion. Those echoes, however, appear much less marked when one takes into account shared inspirations, such as the Norse Eddas and Paradise Lost.

One very curious “Ork”, a flying creature named Flipper, is a major (and sympathetic) character in L. Frank Baum’s The Scarecrow of Oz (1915), the eighth book in the original Oz series. He is described as follows:

“…they saw emerging from the water the most curious creature either of them had ever beheld. It wasn't a fish, Trot decided, nor was it a beast. It had wings, though, and queer wings they were: shaped like an inverted chopping bowl and covered with tough skin instead of feathers. It had four legs - much like the legs of a stork, only double the number - and its head was shaped a good deal like that of a poll parrot, with a beak that curved downward in front and upward at the edges, and was half bill and half mouth. But to call it a bird was out of the question, because it had no feathers whatever except a crest of wavy plumes of a scarlet color on the very top of its head.”

The concept artists who designed beaked and feathered Orcs for an abortive animated movie of The Lord of the Rings in the 1960s may have been thinking of Baum’s creature, but it is hard to imagine that Tolkien himself was.

It is apparent, however, that humanoid orcs – as opposed to the maritime kind – had a history before Tolkien and beyond his Old English inspirations: and that history lies largely in the realms of Italian romance and folklore, of which he knew relatively little, and where they play a role more like that of French ogres and Scandinavian trolls than of MacDonald’s goblins or Morris’ Huns. Some more recent works of fantasy (notably the Warcraft franchise) have made orcs gigantic in size, and given them porcine tusks like those of Basile’s uerchi – a sign, perhaps, that the Italian tradition is coming into its own.

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