Orcs, Britons, and the Martial Race Myth, Part II: They're Not Human

This is the complement to my previous article, “Orcs, Britons, and the Martial Race Myth, Part I: A Species Built for Racial Terror.” In the previous article, we learned how racist myths from the British academy and army fueled JRR Tolkien’s creation of orcs as an analogue for Asian people. Today I want to look at what happens to orcs as we follow Lord of the Rings’s influence into modern media. When Dungeons & Dragons and its descendants introduced orcs to the United States of America, orcs gained new ethnic dimensions and encountered new and visceral depths of criminalization and dehumanization. In the conclusion to this piece, I suggest several new directions in which gamers of all ethnicities might take the orcs they design or play, to rework this symbol of racist degeneracy into the vanguard of decolonization.

Read More

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.

Read More