Orcs, Britons, and the Martial Race Myth, Part I: A Species Built for Racial Terror

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 John Ronald Reuel 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, JRR 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 cultural stereotypes; and draw parallels between the challenges of rehabilitating orcs’ portrayals and of decolonizing one’s own relationship to one’s cultural stereotypes.

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