content warnings: racism, colonialism/imperialism, cultural conflation, sexism, sexual violence, anger
This is the first installment of a two-article series about the racist origins, nature, and ramifications of orcs, a malevolent humanoid species from English author JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth fantasy setting. I started researching this article with the hypothesis that a collection of negative assumptions about people of color in general, common among the British of Tolkien’s time, gave rise to orcs. I was wrong. Drawing on the most hateful stereotypes he knew, Tolkien explicitly and purposefully crafted orcs as a detrimental depiction of Asian people specifically. Part I, below, traces the long histories of the racist fears and ideologies which motivated Tolkien. Part II will explore how later fantasists have adapted the orcish concept to express different harmful stereotypes; and draw parallels between the challenges of rehabilitating orcs’ portrayals and of decolonizing one’s own relationship to one’s cultural stereotypes.
How to Read These Articles
With regard to racist content in fantasy media, this series discusses history, background, and intent, as well as offensive content and the amelioration thereof. Spoiler alert: the latter are more important than the former. I wouldn’t have included the backstory rundown if I didn’t believe in it; but even if you disagree with my reasoning there, the breakdowns of how stereotypes—even unintentional ones—harm people of color in the present day, and how to avoid those patterns yourself, will help you and the people you care about the most going forward.
Hey, Professor Tolkien. What do orcs look like?
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.
Cool. That’s from his Letter #210, and he just described me and all my relatives on my mom’s side. Why would he say that?
Orcs are a species—more commonly labeled a “race”—of wicked, dangerous humanoids found en masse in JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth as well as most of analog and electronic gaming. But Tolkien derived their ugly appearance and savage temperament, like almost all orcish traits common across different media, from a long and painful history.
We say Tolkien invented orcs as we know them today. More precisely, he synthesized their nature from various traditional characterizations—not of mythical beings, but of real-life humans. Some of those characterizations came from popular European conceptions of the greatest threats to Western civilization. Others came from pseudoscientific frameworks of racism, some of which Tolkien would have encountered in his academic training. But Tolkien would meet the most germane theory to his orcs in his military service with the British Army: the fallacy of the martial race.
Orcs are my problematic fave. Show me a fantasy game with orcs in it, and my first question is whether I can play as one. But I’m a multiracial person of color who works in gaming as a cultural consultant, and therefore a connoisseur of classic racial prejudice. I can’t ignore the staggering racism which directly inspired the Tolkienian tropes which influenced every corner of nerd culture, most of all Dungeons & Dragons.
The story of why orcs are the way they are, and in fact why we talk about science fiction species and fantasy races the way we do, takes us back into military history, to British imperialism in Scotland, the Pacific Islands, Africa, and especially Asia; and, in fact, all the way back to the Mongolian steppe at the turn of the thirteenth century.
It’s a long journey, which we’ll take in two parts. This first part tracks all the historical and racial influences on Middle-earth’s orcs. The second, which will come later, shows how those ideas’ confluence in The Lord of the Rings has played out in successive speculative fiction, with particular attention to fantasy role-playing games and to people of color’s struggle to see themselves represented in nerd culture. But let’s start on the steppe.
From Scourge of God to Yellow Peril
Societies fighting different societies have always constructed narratives around those conflicts which elevate themselves and denigrate their enemies. The term “barbarian” comes from an ancient Greek onomatopœia for the way foreign tongues sounded to Greeks. Tolkien’s particular take on civilization versus barbarism, though, owes a special debt to Eastern threats to Europe: the myriad related but distinct Eurasian and Central Asian equestrian civilizations whom fearful Western Europeans labeled “Tartars.”
Attila the Hun, the Scourge of God, terrorized Europe during the fall of the Roman Empire, that dubious bastion of Western civilization to which the Eurocentric imagination would always hearken back. But Attila won some, lost some, and died an ignominious death. In the thirteenth century CE, Chinggis Khagan’s armies rolled out of Mongolia and over every source of opposition they faced to create the largest empire the world would ever know. They would have conquered Europe, too, had Chinggis’s death not recalled his commanders to the Kherlen River. As we explore Tolkien’s background and his creations, references (subtle and overt, but mostly overt) to Asia in general and Mongolia in particular will come up again and again.
Shadows of the Empire
So what factors preserved the Mongol Terror until Tolkien’s birth in 1892?
Was it cruelty? Doubtful—the Mongols’ enemies and victims accused them of all the same atrocities conquering armies always seem to commit.
Was it success? For sure, at least in part. The Mongols accomplished seemingly impossible feats of strategy and logistics.
I suspect Mongol curiosity about foreign cultures and religions set them apart. Despite all their violent acts, they rarely stamped out local cultures, nor chewed them up and spit them out as digested versions of their own. Instead, they shared and learned. When they left the steppe and encountered fortresses their horse archers couldn’t beat, they learned siegecraft and grew as feared for their trebuchets as for their mounts and bows. They collected new religions like Pokémon and proclaimed freedom of worship throughout their empire. When Papal missionaries arrived in Khubilai Khagan’s court, they were surprised to find the Great Khan practicing several seemingly contradictory religions—including his mother’s, Christianity—without any worry of conflict between them. You couldn’t beat Mongols in battle because they were tougher and more resourceful. But you also couldn’t beat them in a culture war, because they wouldn’t fight you at all. They’d welcome you into the tent and sit down and listen to you over drinks. Is it any wonder the Mongols intermarried so freely with all the peoples they encountered?
Of course, a less savory narrative surrounded—and surrounds—that intermixture. Potentates in the former Mongol Empire claimed apocryphal descent from Chinggis Khagan all the damn time. But as recently as 2003, a genetics paper asserted that one in two hundred men alive today descends from Chinggis Khagan, based on a certain Mongolian Y-chromosomal lineage’s prevalence across the former Mongol Empire due to “a novel form of social selection resulting from [Chinggis Khagan’s relatives’] behavior.” The study thus lends credence to an old canard that paints Mongols in general and Chinggis in particular as virulent sexual predators. That matter’s truth or falsehood isn’t actually germane to this meandering discussion about orcs; but given the worldwide prevalence of rape culture in the Mongol Empire’s time and now, I caution readers about the conclusion that this culture was somehow worse in this regard. Nevertheless, this narrative contributed to the Mongol Terror’s legacy in a pretty creepy way.
That Wasn’t Even Its Final Form
By the time of Tolkien’s birth, nationalistic sentiment and imperialist expansion drove European foreign policy. But since fundamentally different cultural paradigms drove the past’s greatest empire, the imperialist mind twisted Mongolian syncretism and admixture into an insidious campaign to infiltrate and usurp Western society’s cherished institutions by artifice and treachery. Central to this plot was the threat of forceful miscegenation: that these small, effeminate men, too desperate and rapacious to fight or love fair, would steal white women from their rightful mates. As of the American conquest of the Philippines, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Russo-Japanese War, Filipinos and Chinese and Japanese replaced Mongols as the greatest threat. The Mongol Terror had transformed into the Yellow Peril.
Anxieties about culture, sex, and empire kept a Central Asian threat from centuries in the past in the atmosphere while a young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien grew up in South Africa and Worcestershire. As he read about George MacDonald’s goblins, the adults around him would have discussed British colonialism and the Yellow Peril. I speak from personal experience when I tell you Asians in the twenty-first century still must fight censure based on Yellow Peril stereotypes when we try to find love. You better believe Tolkien’s time did as well. In fact, perhaps you remember a certain nickname the Americans and English had for the Germans in World Wars I and II?
In any case, remember those points—about the Mongol threat, and (for Part II of this article) about foreign invaders preying upon white women. They’ll be back.
When JRR Tolkien got older, he matriculated at Oxford to study classics and English. After graduation, he joined the British Army to fight in the Great War. First in academia and then in the armed forces, he encountered strains of scientific racism which directly and explicitly influenced his orcs. Scientific racism is the application of pseudoscientific theories to justify racial prejudice. It goes hand in hand with social Darwinism, evolutionary psychology, and other forms of fake science which continue to propagate in the form of presidential speeches and clickbait articles your embarrassing relatives like to re-share. Pretty much any educated white man could come up with his own bad take about people who had fewer bullets than him, based on the time they met a foreign tribe once or their peculiar collection of human skulls. Let’s learn about the forms of scientific racism which most influenced Tolkien.
Have you ever wondered why the American term “Caucasian” refers to white people of European descent rather than the often light-skinned, sometimes dark-skinned people who live on and around the Caucasus Mountains? That usage descends from a progression of creepy European “scientists” who classified humans into three or more fetishistic categories, explained quickly and incisively below by Franchesca Ramsey—take four minutes and watch her kill this one.
The takeaway is that the Caucasoids of Europe are the original, most beautiful, and most advanced race. Everyone else, including Asia’s wretched Mongoloids, is a degenerate corruption of whites’ original line; and now that we know about the Mongol Terror, the Mongoloids’ designation should come as no surprise. Individuals with trisomy 21 were derided as Mongoloids (CW: horrific ableism) because their “Asian-looking” facial structure supposedly marked the disease’s regressive effects towards a more primitive form (even though Caucasoids were supposed to be the original form—I don’t pretend to understand it). That narrative of originals and corruptions will return when Tolkien tells us where orcs came from.
The British weren’t the first to ascribe innate combat bonuses to certain ethnicities. That idea was all over Europe and America. Major-General Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz’s seminal 1832 military science manual, On War, has a chapter about how “military genius” is a more complicated notion than various famous commanders’ fan clubs might have liked to think. Its’ pretty great, except for this bit:
In any primitive, warlike race, the warrior spirit is far more common than among civilized peoples. It is possessed by almost every warrior: but in civilized societies only necessity will stimulate it in the people as a whole, since they lack the natural disposition for it. On the other hand, we will never find a savage who is a truly great commander, and very rarely one who would be considered a military genius, since this requires a degree of intellectual powers beyond anything that a primitive people can develop. Civilized societies, too, can obviously possess a warlike character to greater or lesser degree, and the more they develop it, the greater will be the number of men with the military spirit in their armies. Possession of military genius coincides with the higher degrees of civilization: the most highly developed societies produce the most brilliant soldiers, as the Romans and the French have showed us. With them, as with every people renowned in war, the greatest names do not appear before a high level of civilization has been reached.
Where do we begin with this? Who decides which societies are primitive and which are civilized? If we swap in “the Men and the Elves” for “the Romans and the French,” the above paragraph holds together a good deal better than in the real world.
At any rate, England bureaucratized and enshrined the martial race classification to an unprecedented degree through imperialism in South Asia.
Remember how excited the Mongols were about learning their conquests’ culture? The Britishers who colonized India were not nearly so open-minded. They immediately set about oversimplifying an entire subcontinent, from races to classes, religions to professions, castes to clans, keeping Indians in conflict with each other and not their true oppressors. Two wars in particular, which England struggled through with unexpected difficulty and extensive local help, had lasting effects on British perceptions of South Asians: the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-1816, and the first Indian War of Independence of 1857. In their wake, Brits began to designate certain South Asian ethnic groups as “martial races” from which to recruit soldiers.
Men from martial races were strong, tough, savage. Born into violent, warlike cultures. Raised to prize military prowess above all other pursuits. Naturally inclined to raid their neighbors or, when no neighbors can be found, to fight amongst themselves. Stubborn and simple-minded, despite all their martial skill. Easily controlled by more graceful, cerebral people—a rare few whipped into shape as honorable soldiers for a good cause, more commonly forged into evil forces’ rank and file. Like orcs.
I highly recommend this fascinating lecture by Jasdeep Singh for a detailed breakdown of how the British reached such far-fetched conclusions; but in sum, their favorite “martial races” were the ones who had reasons (albeit always complicated ones) to obey them. Tolkien will remind us of this structure—thoughtful commander, martial underling—before long.
JRR Tolkien served in the British Army from 1915 to 1920. Winston Churchill was still harping on the martial race idea a decade later. Tolkien could never have avoided it.
“… but isn’t it cool to be from a warrior race?”
I can’t believe I need to explain this point, but no, it’s not cool to be from a warrior race.
First of all, it’s false. There is no warrior gene. There are no martial races. No one is born to kill: not pit bulls, not men, and certainly not ethnicities. You can acculturate someone to value violence or military service, and you can definitely force a culture over which you have power into a violent little box so they feel they have no choice but violence. But talking with precision about violence as the product of power structures is very, very different from calling anyone a warlike people.
Sometimes you will meet individuals who are personally excited about their culture’s martial tradition. That’s nice for them. But please recognize the difference between expressing admiration for military service as a choice, and internalizing your colonizers’ party line that fighting dutifully until you die (and usually for colonists’ agendas) is all you’re good for.
“Positive” stereotypes are still harmful. Stereotypes operate in kyriarchical systems where the Man presents his subjects with a narrow range of acceptable, “positive” stereotypes to which they may adhere—and if they don’t, threatens them with another, deadlier set of negative stereotypes. Either you excel in the way society has told you it’s okay for you to excel, or they’ll assume you’re one of the Bad Ones. Be a musician or point guard, or else you’re a thug or a welfare queen. Be a doctor or economist, or else you’re a cab driver or terrorist. Fight to the death for our armies, or else you’re a threat to Western civilization to be beaten down and controlled.
Beyond South Asia, England inflicted martial race theory upon several other ethnicities they colonized, including Scottish, Zulu, Kamba, and Māori people. Even after they threw off the British yoke and discarded “martial race” as a categorization, internalized prejudice kept the theory alive. The Indian and Pakistani militaries still grapple with the theory’s aftershocks. Jason Momoa’s haka at the Aquaman premiere prompted Māori commentators to point out how his attitude toward the dance perpetuates critically dangerous stereotypes about Polynesian violence. This article and accompanying video lecture, which dive deep into the martial race concept’s harmful effects on Māori people, inspired me to write this article in the first place. Even in fantasy, any serious mention of warrior races both borrows vocabulary from and lends credence to an ideology which gets real people hurt and killed.
We will revisit these effects in Part II, when we talk about the lasting appeal of orcs in fiction.
Origin of Species
We know JRR Tolkien’s experience fighting in World War I influenced his eventual creation of Middle-earth and the various species which populate it. The coolest thing to be in Tolkien’s work is an elf: a tall, willowy, beautiful, graceful, pale, immortal creature, created by the greatest of the gods as Middle-earth’s original sentient species. Their homeland is in the setting’s far west, whereas the evil empire is headquartered in the far east. But according to the Silmarillion, a few unlucky elves
who came into the hands of [the Dark Lord] Melkor … by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes.
So orcs are degenerate corruptions of the OG elves … kinda like how Mongoloids, Negroids, and other people of color are corrupt, degenerate versions of the noble white Caucasoids whom they resent. Now that description of orcs which starts this piece, which comes from Tolkien’s Letter #210, makes more sense. When he writes “Mongol-types,” he straight-up tells us he made the Mongol terror and the Mongoloid stereotype into an entire species. Further visual descriptions of orcs throughout Tolkien’s œuvre match Letter #210’s, although he also likes to mention how black, dark, or swart they are—all terms applied to Indians in Tolkien’s time as well as Africans. He also refers to different orc “breeds’” animal attributes like claws, yellow fangs, dragging knuckles, or porcine senses of smell.
We’ve already seen that a description of orcs’ violent nature and the British Army’s criteria for martial races are identical. But even within orcish ranks, there’s another martial subrace: the Uruk-hai, “bred” for size and soldiering aptitude. The orcs’ masters give us the hierarchy martial race theory recommends: a more thoughtful commander from a higher race, in charge of natural-born soldiers from the martial race. Those commanders are the Dark Lords Melkor (originally one of the Ainur, a kind of god) and Sauron (a fallen Maia, or angelic spirit); the human wizard Saruman the White; and the ex-human Ringwraiths.
But we know who really did the breeding here. Tolkien outright purpose-built his orcs to evoke and combine the most vile Asian stereotypes, visual and behavioral and biological. They weren’t casual or incidental. They definitely weren’t accidental. And if I could believe for a second that these constructions were incidental to The Lord of the Rings, a quote from that New York Times article dispels that belief:
The Hobbits were “a reflection of the English soldier,” made small of stature to emphasize “the amazing and unexpected heroism of ordinary men ‘at a pinch.’”
These fantasy races’ cultural coding wasn’t incidental to the adventure story. It was the point.
The Lord of the Rings is about European heroism and Asian villainy.
“But it’s only fantasy.”
Sure. And if you call me a racial slur, it’s only words.
Does intent matter? Because I think Tolkien’s own words in the previous section make his intent pretty clear: he’s telling a story about good and evil where good is explicitly identified with England, evil is explicitly identified with Asians, and the means for communicating those concepts is a catalogue of classic racism.
But maybe you still think it doesn’t matter. Maybe you think, in fact, that applying these Asian stereotypes to a fantasy race who might look like but aren’t real Asian people, who actually are inherently evil and okay to murder, is a safe way to enjoy a fight between good and evil, to let the hero look badass and slaughter bad guys without compunction.
Designing a fantasy universe based on racist theories whose purpose is to uphold acts of violence and dehumanization toward an exaggerated, intentional stand-in for my family is not okay, any more than laughing at minstrel shows is okay if it’s just white people with shoe polish on their faces, not Black people. This act is akin to making up a speculative-fiction race where women really are simple-minded commodified sex objects because you really wish you could reduce women to simple-minded commodified sex objects without offending actual women.
Maybe you’re not doing it out of racism. Maybe you only think it’s interesting to explore these ideas. Fine. Perhaps you, alone among humans, aren’t racist. But if that’s so, I’m not worried about you. I’m worried about everyone who will show up to stan this thing because they’re racist and it lets them indulge their racist fantasies. That’s a problem in fandom. In Part II of this article, we’ll see how the problem worsens when people act it out, because we’re going to look at Dungeons & Dragons.
Conclusion and Links
Thanks for bearing with me through this long, painful process. Please continue to Part II to discover how a bespoke anti-Asian racist caricature has become a fantasy fiction staple while getting more, rather than less, offensive.
Here’s a summary of articles linked in the piece.
Trebuchet memes: http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2016/11/what-are-trebuchet-memes.html
Chinggis Khagan’s alleged genetic legacy: https://www.cell.com/ajhg/fulltext/S0002-9297(07)60587-4
Filipino Americans fight anti-miscegenation bills targeting them: http://depts.washington.edu/depress/filipino_anti_miscegenation.shtml
Code Switch interviews Angela Saini on race science’s resurgence: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2019/07/10/416496218/is-race-science-making-a-comeback
Franchesca Ramsey’s racist history of “Caucasian”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKB8hXYod2w
Her home page: http://www.franchesca.net/
“Mongoloid” as an ableist AND racist slur: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/tv/features/why-are-the-words-mongol-mongoloid-and-mongy-still-bandied-about-as-insults-9878557.html
England pits Indians and Pakistanis against one another: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/18/opinion/india-pakistan-partition-imperial-britain.html
Jasdeep Singh on the martial races of India: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUvyvodMID0
Amardeep Singh concurs: https://www.lehigh.edu/~amsp/2006/12/myth-of-martial-races.html
Martial races are somehow still a thing in the Indian Army: https://morningmedia.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/the-shadow-of-the-martial-race-theory-in-the-indian-army-does-it-still-exist/
The Māori are not a damn martial race, Jason Momoa: https://thespinoff.co.nz/atea/19-12-2018/once-were-gardeners-lovers-and-poets-not-warriors/
Thanks to Bex, Jenny P, and everyone else who chimed in with research help on the Crossings slack.