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John Howe - In Mordor.jpg
General Information
MembersGothmog, Othrod, Azog, Gorbag
Physical Description
DistinctionsShort, sallow
Average heightprobably just above 5'[source?]
GalleryImages of Orcs

Orcs were the footsoldiers of evil overlords - Morgoth, Sauron and the Witch-king of Angmar.



Origins and early Years

The Orcs were bred by Melkor in mockery of the Elves, sometime during the Great Darkness.[1][2]

It is unclear when exactly Orcs were created, but it certainly happened before the War for Sake of the Elves in his stronghold of Utumno. If the Orcs where at this time a capable fighting force against the host of Valinor is not known. But at least some of them survived this war, probably hidden in the deep vaults of Angband and multiplied, waiting for their master.

When Melkor (now known as Morgoth) returned to Middle-earth he created new hordes of Orcs and invaded Beleriand, where the First Battle of Beleriand took place. Orcs fought also in Dagor-nuin-Giliath.

First Age

Orcs appear in the First Age as the core force of Morgoth. Hundreds of thousands of Orcs were bred in Angband to participate in the Battles of Beleriand, which lasted 587 years.

Orcs first appear in the First Age in the Battle of the Lammoth, where they were defeated by Fingolfin and his Noldor. Orcs participated in battles such as the Dagor Aglareb, Dagor Bragollach, Nirnaeth Arnoediad, Fall of the Falas, and finally in the War of Wrath, were they were almost extinguished. Those that survived the defeat fled eastwards and hid probably in the Mountains of Angmar and the Ered Mithrin.

Second Age

At around the year thousand Sauron reappeared, took the land of Mordor as his realm and started the construction of Barad-dûr. It is likely that most of his servants where Orcs at this time that he had gathered under his command. Still for a long time Sauron's foul servants did not play an important role, for the Dark Lord had chosen a more subtle way to overthrow the free people by creating the Rings of Power.

During the War of the Elves and Sauron, in S.A.1700 Orcs formed the main power of Sauron's host. Despite the immeasurable number of Orcs, Sauron was defeated by the united hosts of Elves and Númenóreans. Still Sauron was still powerful east of the Misty Mountains and the inlands and the Orcs that inhabited the mountains multiplied.

The Orcs of the Misty Mountains started a war against the Dwarves, resulting in the First Sack of Gundabad and its occupation by the Orcs. Finally, Orcs were the core force of Sauron during the War of the Last Alliance, and fought in great battles such as the Battle of Dagorlad and the Siege of Barad-dûr.

Third Age

During the Third Age, Orcs were the standard troops of the Witch-king of Angmar and Sauron (both in Mordor and in Dol Guldur).

In Angmar, Orcs fought in the Angmar War. Years later, they invaded Eriador under the leadership of the Necromancer.

The Orcs of the Misty Mountains, one of the few (more or less) independent Orcish societies, and their leader Azog started out the War of the Dwarves and Orcs, and after their defeat they retreated in their caves. They appeared again in T.A. 2941, when the Battle of Five Armies took place.

The Orcs of Mordor fought in major battles during the War of the Ring, such as the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, but the entire Mordor force was destroyed in the Battle of the Morannon.

The Orcs in Dol Guldur remained in Mirkwood until the Fall of Dol Guldur, one of the last battles of the War of the Ring.

Fourth Age and beyond

Although the entire force of Sauron was destroyed after the War of the Ring, it is assumed that many Orcs continued to live beneath the Misty Mountains and caused little trouble.[source?]



It is certain all Orcs were dependent on the Dark Lord in various ways: after their leader was defeated, the Orcs were confused and dismayed, and easily scattered by their enemies. In the millennia after Morgoth's defeat and banishment from Arda, they were without a leader they degenerated to small, quarrelsome tribes hiding in the Misty Mountains. Only when Sauron returned to power did they begin to reclaim some of their old power. The same happened after Sauron's defeat by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men: only when Sauron returned as the Necromancer of Mirkwood did the Orcs become a real danger for Middle-earth again.

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".[source?]


It is unknown if the Orcs were immortal like the Elves. There is, in any case, a hint for a long livespan in the story of two of the most famous Orc-chieftains: Azog and Bolg. Bolg, being the son of Azog, was the chieftain of the Orcs who attacked Erebor in the Battle of Five Armies in T.A. 2941. Azog himself was killed in the Battle of Azanulbizar in T.A. 2799, so Bolg was aproximately 150 years old.


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 and are only able to destroy, not to create. They had sour black blood.[source?]

Kinds of Orcs

Tolkien loosely implies that there are actually several different breeds of Orcs, not simply in the wide variety in clans, but strains of Orc that were specifically bred for certain tasks.

The Fellowship usually encounters the large soldier-Orcs bred for war, and sometimes the "snaga" variety which were more geared towards being labourers. However, a strong hint at the variety of Orc breeds is when Frodo and Sam are in Mordor, and realize that they are being followed by two Orcs, then hide to observe them. One of the Orcs is a normal soldier-Orc, but the other is described as a "Snuffler", a breed specifically geared towards being a tracker. This tracker-Orc was, compared to the soldier-Orc, physically unimposing, but had vastly overdeveloped sensory organs, particularly a single giant nostril. While physically weak compared to the soldier-Orc, the "snuffler" was able to skilfully kill the soldier-orc when they got into a disagreement.


The word Orc is said to be the "form of the name that other races had for this foul people as it was in the language of Rohan".[3]

In his late, post-Lord of the Rings writings, Tolkien preferred the spelling Ork.[4] This was evidently mainly to avoid the form Orcish, which would be naturally pronounced with the c as /s/ instead of /k/. (In Tolkien's languages the letter c was always pronounced /k/.) It is also possible that the word is a Common Tongue Version of 'orch', the Sindarin word for Orc. The original sense of the word seems to be "bogey", "bogeyman", that is, something that provokes fear, as seen in the Quenya cognate urko, pl. urqui.[source?]

Tolkien derived the word orc from Old English believing it refers to a kind of evil spirits,[5][6] which in turn derives from Latin Orcus "Hades". He also thought it survives in the modern language for sea-beasts,[7] such as the Orca Whale.

Orc is an Old English word that refers mainly to a kind of metal cup (from Latin Urceus).[note 1] However, in a 11th century glossary, this entry was conflated with another entry which refers to evil giants such as þyrs and other monsters, also glossed in Latin as Orcus. This merge of the two entries made many philologists of the previous centuries, like Tolkien, to believe that Orc was an actual Old English word that refers to any kind of evil creature from the underworld.[8]

The word Orcnéas is once found only in Beowulf (lines 112-113) and is cited as an example of the word "Orc" in Old English text. Actually its meaning is not clear, and it is thought to refer to corpses (néas) from the Underworld.

However, it is also mentioned that the word Orc is Anglo-Saxon for "Foreigner, Monster, Demon" and was used to refer to the Normans invading the Anglish in 1066.[9]

Orcs in Tolkien's languages

Tolkien said that one of the reason of choosing "Orc" over "Goblin" was the similarity with his fictional languages.[10] Indeed most Elvish, Mannish and other words for Orc, are similar to the English word.

The basic Primitive Quendian root, from which the words for Orc derive, is RUKU (said to refer to any "bogey" that scared the Elves)[10]:

In the earliest versions of Qenya, Tolkien had words such as "Ork (orq-) pl. Orqi and fem. "orqindi".[source?]

In Noldorin, the earlier version of Sindarin, the word for Orc is the same: orch (pl yrch).[17][18][19] The Gnomish word for "one of a tribe of the orcs. a goblin" is said to be Gong.[20]

Orcs and Goblins

Main article: Goblin

In The Hobbit, Tolkien primarily used the word "goblin" for Orcs. In The Lord of the Rings, "Orc" is used predominantly, though there are several references to "goblins".

"Goblin" is an English word, whereas "Orc" is Old English, the language used by Tolkien to represent Rohirric.[21] Thus, there is no difference between Orcs and Goblins, and the two names of different languages have much the same relationship as dog (English) and hund (German).

The original edition of The Hobbit and early drafts of The Lord of the Rings first used 'goblin' everywhere and used 'hobgoblin' for larger, more evil goblins: when goblins were replaced with Orcs Tolkien invented the term Uruk-hai for his more evil Orcs.

Other Versions of the Lengendarium


According to the oldest "theory" proposed by Tolkien, Orcs were made of stone and slime through the sorcery of Morgoth. But, Tolkien later changed the legendarium so that Morgoth could no longer produce life on his own.

While Tolkien originally saw all Orcs as descended from tortured Elves, later comments of his indicate, according to Christopher Tolkien in Morgoth's Ring ("Myths Transformed, text X"), that he began to feel uncomfortable with the theory that orcs were descending from Elves. However, Tolkien died before he could complete his upheaval of the cosmology, and in the published version of The Silmarillion, the Elf origin of Orcs was adopted. It does not appear that the elder Tolkien ever decided on a definitive answer.

The origin of Orcs is an open question. In Tolkien's writings, evil is not capable of independent creation, making it unlikely that the Vala Melkor, who was obviously the first to produce them, could do that ex nihilo. In the The Silmarillion is mentioned that the Orcs were transformed from Elves — the purest form of life on Arda (the Earth) — by means of torture and mutilation; and this "theory" would then become the most popular. There are hints in the History of Middle-earth series of books, (especially in Morgoth's Ring in the section "Myths Transformed"), that some Orc leaders, such as the First Age's Boldog, or the Great Goblin encountered by Bilbo and the Dwarves, may in fact have been fallen Maiar which had taken Orc form.

Yet other Orcs may have begun as animals of vaguely humanoid shapes, empowered by the will of the Dark Lord (first Morgoth, later Sauron): this may explain the references to their "beaks and feathers"[source?] in Tolkien's writings.

The Orcs were beasts of humanized shape (…). ('Morgoth's Ring', "Myths transformed", text VIII')


Tolkien's Orcs have allegedly been a subject of criticism of racism. Tolkien described Orcs as "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".[22] Another possible offensive theme present in orcs (though not necessarily racist), is the fact that when the orcs talk, they often use the same phrases and accents that the English working-class is known to use.[source?]

See also


  1. The word Orc occurs twice in Beowulf.
  2. Orchoth is likely a compound of orch + hoth.
  3. Rukhs appears to contain the radical R-Kh-S.


  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor"
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "Treebeard"
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, "The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age", "Of Other Races"
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Peoples of Middle-earth
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 144, (dated 25 April 1954)
  6. J.R.R. Tolkien, "Gene Wolfe 7 November 1966" (letter)
  7. J.R.R. Tolkien, "Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings" in Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (eds), The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, p. 762
  8. Bosworth and Toller's An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1898), corrected in later editions
  9. "1066 The Battle for Middle Earth" 2009 (documentary)
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The War of the Jewels, "Part Four. Quendi and Eldar: Appendix C. Elvish names for the Orcs", pp. 389-91
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 J.R.R. Tolkien, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", in Parma Eldalamberon XVII (edited by Christopher Gilson), p. 47
  12. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The War of the Jewels, "The Grey Annals": §27, p. 12
  13. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, pp. 74, 194
  14. 14.0 14.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", in Parma Eldalamberon XVII (edited by Christopher Gilson), pp. 52-4
  15. J.R.R. Tolkien, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", in Parma Eldalamberon XVII (edited by Christopher Gilson), p. 99
  16. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Ride of the Rohirrim"
  17. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lost Road and Other Writings, "Part Three: The Etymologies", p. 379 (entry for ÓROK)
  18. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Three. The Later Quenta Silmarillion: (I) The First Phase: 7. Of the Flight of the Noldor", p. 195
  19. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, "A Secret Vice", p. 217
  20. J.R.R. Tolkien, "I-Lam na-Ngoldathon: The Grammar and Lexicon of the Gnomish Tongue", in Parma Eldalamberon XI (edited by Christopher Gilson, Arden R. Smith, and Patrick H. Wynne), p. 41
  21. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, "The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age", "Of Other Races"
  22. J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 210, (undated, written June 1958)