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Orcs, or Orks, are one of the most iconic species within our cultures fantasy lore. Orcs exist in hundreds of books, games, and movies where more often than not they are the great villainous swarm of inhuman monsters. Usually with pointed ears, dark skin, and prominent tusks jutting from their lower mouths the Orcs are almost always ugly abominations that no mortal being wishes to look upon.
But there is more to the Orcs, from their beginning to this modern era the Orcs have changed more than just a little bit. Inspired by watching the Warcraft movie I decided to examine the fantasy race as a whole, and too see what role they truly play, and my findings truly surprised me.
First off, Orcs are not as old as most people would think. Technically orcs were created by Tolkien in a sense, there is a Mythological creature called an Ork, and one language uses Nork as a word for pig (thus possibly explaining the orcs often boar-like features?), overall Orcs seemed to have grown out of dozens of cultures use for the word Orcneas to refer to evil beings. Orcs share their origins with Ogres, hence the many similarities in how they are portrayed in popular culture, this word Orcneas was used in the epic Beowulf when the book was listing off various evil creatures, in the context of this book the word Orcneas basically meant “and all the other evil beings”.
But from that word grew out orcs and ogres, and it is no small mistake that Grendel from Beowulf is often depicted like a troll, orc, or ogre as the creature seemed to have a big influence on how these creatures would be depicted. In a way Grendal could be seen as the grandfather of the orcish fantasy races, whether or not the description of these creatures is accurate too his appearance being irrelevant to his effect of course.
At the beginning orcs were beings of pure evil, they had no redeeming qualities, people who wrote them poured any and all negative traits of humanity that they could conceive of into these creatures. Doing this however led to something unexpected I think, and that is the fact that when you define a being by everything wrong with humanity you are still creating something human, to put it simply we began to see ourselves within these creatures.
Thus the revisionist orcs began to roll in, the culture of these creatures got more depth, they became complex and nuanced in many works. In the previously mentioned Warcraft film (and the whole game franchise) the orcs were a complex people, in fact the many people point to Warcraft orcs as being the prime example of revisionist orcs. But personally I would point too The Elder Scrolls series of games.
What Orcs have become are a people defined by the prejudice against them, both in the real world and within the fantasy realms that they call home. Is this prejudice valid though? Orcs are often the enemies of mankind in fiction, often beings created from evil magic, but that shouldn’t define who they are on an individual and personal level. Like it or not they are still beings capable of thought and reason, they are just like us.
Prejudice against Orcs is so strong in the real world that many video games and table top RPGs wont even let the player play an orc, at most the player will get to be able to be a “half orc” which is a bit of an oddity. Other games may allow the players to play Orcs but with considerably handicaps to intelligence, which is a highly uncomfortable and downright scary thing for many of these games to do.
In the fictional worlds Orcs exist in, even when Orcs are portrayed at their most honorable and kind, the orcs are victims of prejudice from humanity, elves, dwarves, and most other races. At the end of the day the Orcs are the spurned, the ostracized, the hated, the great enemy, the pig children, the greenskins, and they are more powerful for it. Orcs do not take the hatred against them laying down, some will meet this prejudice they face with violence and anger, others will combat it by being the very best that they can be going above and beyond.
The Orcs are not perfect beings in the fiction, in the real world they are varied, but there is only one common core truth to what an orc is.
And that core truth is that they are hated.
Anyone who has ever faced prejudice of any kind can sympathize with the orcs a little bit I think. I have faced prejudice throughout my life for both my weight and my mental condition (or rather the mental condition that a person told everyone I had, but never actually had… long story), and I cannot help but see myself when I look at the Orcs. Because as a people they judged as inferior because of how they look, because of an assumption that they are mentally broken, the idea that they are monsters that can at any moment go crazy…
Because of all of this, because of the complex history of the orcs in fantasy in the real world, because of their nuanced and complex cultures within these worlds, and because of all the orcs have to face, they are and likely always will be my favorite species within traditional fantasy fiction. Given the choice I will always chose to play an orc in a fantasy game, failing that I will play any of their kin, ogres, trolls, goblins, hobgoblins, or whatever in that world is the closest to the orcs.