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A Latin word for a demon or a creature of the underworld, the word Orc was revived by J. R. R. Tolkien in his fictional stories of Middle-earth as the name of a race of creatures that are often used by evil forces as soldiers. The term "Orc" is properly capitalised in Tolkien's writing, but not necessarily in other sources.

In Tolkien's writing, Orcs are described as humanoid, roughly human-sized, ugly and filthy. Although not dim-witted, they are portrayed as dull and miserable beings, who corrupt words (an insult, when stated by a philologist like Tolkien!) and are only able to destroy, not to create. Orcs are used as soldiers by both the greater and lesser villains of The Lord of the RingsSauron and Saruman. In Tolkien's Sindarin language, "Orc" is orch, plural yrch.

The origin of Orcs is an open question. In Tolkien's writings, evil is not capable of independent creation, making it unlikely that the demon Melkor (later called Morgoth), who was obviously the first to produce them, could do that ex nihilo. This implies, in turn, that the Orcs were descended from the only "stock material" that was available at that moment — Elves, who were somehow corrupted. It is unknown, however, how Elves, the most noble and fair of all creatures of Middle-earth, could be corrupted into the most foul. Moreover, if Orcs are Elves, this could perhaps mean that they are also immortal — an conclusion which is unlikely, though the books neither confirm nor deny it.

It is interesting to note that to an extent, Tolkien did not regard Orcs as evil in their own right, but only as tools of Melkor and Sauron. He wrote once that "we were all orcs in the Great War", indicating perhaps that an orc for him was not an inherent build-up of personality, but rather a state of mind bound upon destruction.

In The Hobbit, Tolkien used the word "goblin" for Orcs, perhaps because he felt it was more familiar to his readers, or because he had not yet identified the world of The Hobbit with Middle-earth (which he had already begun creating in a separate work that would eventually become The Silmarillion). In The Lord of the Rings, "Orc" is used predominantly, and "goblin" mostly in the Hobbits' speech. This change can be seen either as a part of the shift towards the use of Elvish words that occurred during the period between the writing of The Hobbit and the writing of The Lord of the Rings, or a translation of the Hobbits' more colloquial manner (if we "accept" the books' authenticity and regard Tolkien merely as a translator).

Since the publication of Tolkien's epic novel, The Lord of the Rings, creatures called "orcs" have become a fixture of fantasy role-playing games and fiction, most famously in Dungeons & Dragons. However, in these derivative sources, orcs and goblins may be considered distinct races of monsters. In these sources, orcs are frequent villains, often cast as a brutal, bestial, and tribal parody of humans and human society. Even game players that wish to play the role of an orc are instead usually encouraged to play a half-orc, the offspring of an orc and a human.

Sources of the name "orc"

Orcus, in Roman mythology, was an alternative name for Pluto, Hades, or Dis Pater, god of the land of the dead. The name "Orcus" seems to have been given to his evil, punishing side, as the god who tormented evildoers in the afterlife.

Pliny the Elder wrote of orcs in his Historia naturalis, describing a sea monster with large teeth. In Orlando Furioso, an epic by Ludovico Ariosto, the name of "orc" was given to a sea monster that captured the damsel Angelica, and was fought by the hero Rogero riding a hippogriff. It is this use of the word that gave us the word orca as one name for the killer whale (now known by the scientific name orcinus orca).

From this usage, the word "orc" made it into English by being borrowed by Michael Drayton in his Polyolbion, an epic poem about Brutus the Trojan and the mythical founders of Britain, and also appears in the epic poem Paradise Lost, by John Milton. William Blake names one of the characters in his complex mythology "Orc"; Blake's Orc, a proper name, seems to be the embodiment of creative passion and energy, and stands opposed to Urizen, the embodiment of reason.

The humanoid, non-maritime race of orcs are Tolkien's invention.

See also: ogre



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