Initially envisioned by J.R.R. Tolkien, the orc, which is a humanoid brute, frequently acts as a vessel for the “Bad Guy” in a given text to have an army of miserable, violent and subservient grunts who the “Good Guy” can slaughter with impunity. The term “Orc” was derived from both the Latin “Orcus”, the Roman god of death, and “Orke”, a word that the Oxford English Dictionary advises means “Ogre,” first used in the 1650s in “Don Zara” by Samuel Holland (which can be found here: http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/TextRecord.php?action=GET&textsid=33579). Found in a majority of novels, games, and films, orcs are a mainstay of the fantasy genre.
Orcs are universally characterized by their muscular, warlike nature. Across most forms of high fantasy where orcs are present, they’re known for being aggressive and antagonistic toward humans. In the works of Tolkien, Warhammer: Fantasy, and Dungeons & Dragons, orcs are barbaric savages who are incapable of artistic self-expression, using their limited intelligence almost exclusively to rape and pillage, either for their own benefit or as service to a master, usually a demon or dark god. They might possess tusks, have disproportionate and unsymmetrical facial features, and typically have a skin color dissimilar to anything found in real life (usually shades of green, grey, and brown.)
That said, orcs have undergone a massive evolution in recent decades, with different authors, gaming companies, and artists taking the species into different directions. In the World of Warcraft series, orcs – while at a time, influenced by demons – initially had a “noble savage” origin, a heritage that in the novels and MMORPG, the orcs are trying to reclaim. While still muscled and aggressive, orcs in this franchises’s canon are capable of rational, as well as altruistic, thought processes, and frequently aid both each other and other races. In this way, orcs are much more similar to humans, as while some are certainly the monstrous, fearsome and aggressive creatures found in previous works of fantasy, many are civilized and offer internally consistent explanations for their worldviews.
Orcs are noble humanoids in the Elder Scrolls series as well, fully integrated into Tamrielic society, arguably better than the Elven races. While the theme of a barbaric history remains present in Elder Scrolls’ mythology, orcs are as diverse in their backgrounds, motives and belief structures as any other race or individual, and can be found in occupations and activities ranging from petty thievery to being the Head Master of a school of magic.
Mountains, rugged hills, and the caves and fortresses within them are the usual homes for orcs. Their thick, oily, scaly skin makes them well-suited to survive a vast range of climates, from the burning lava tops in Middle Earth to the brutally harsh winters of Skyrim. It has not been made clear why precisely orcs prefer mountains, but it can be supposed that since mountains are dramatic features of any given landscape, able to be seen from far away, one would associate that mountains – already a dangerous location unsustainable for a continued human presence – are made even more ominous by knowledge of the dangerous creatures living there.
Orcish religion isn’t explored too deeply in most texts, although in general the species has a propensity toward worshipping dark gods and demons as opposed to benevolent and just gods. This is arguably due to orcs having a history of being abused and mistreated, both by other races and each other. Thus, many would have no exposure to a life sans violence, or a society that endorsed critical thinking and equal opportunity. Although, it’s also worth noting that in many cases where orcs follow the will of a malevolent power, it is not typically seen how they react if and when the deity has been defeated.
While most orcs fight with heavy and usually blunt melee weaponry, in most Fantasy canon that involve orcish wizards, their warlocks are typically incredibly skillful at conjuring all sorts of destructive magic. In Magic: The Gathering, for example, Orcish Magi creatures are amongst the most powerful of cards in the Red Mana sets.
As time goes on, it will be interesting to see how orcs evolve past their brutal origins, if they do at all. Will there ever be any media where orcs don’t have a violent past that they either embrace or try to redeem themselves of? Regardless of the answer, as it stands, I wouldn’t want to meet one in person.
Richard Andrew Clark is a writer for HalloweenCostumes.com,
a company that sells orc masks as well as costumes for World of Warcraft and other fantasy characters.