Sunday, 16 July 2017

Tolkien's Drow, the Bizarro Orc, and Corrupt Elfdom

As a general rule I try not to re-read books these days, but I make certain exceptions. I'm currently on may way through The Two Towers for the first time in years (one of my favourite sections in the trilogy - the travails of Pippin and Merry - which I always found more interesting than the Frodo and Sam bits). It gave me an opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the way Tolkien presents orcs in the series - taken in isolation from the goblins in The Hobbit.

It's probably worth noting that Tolkien takes his time with the orcs. They appear first as rumours in The Fellowship of the Ring, then as brief encounters, and finally in the Mines of Moria as a kind of general menace, but they are barely described, and I don't think there is a line of dialogue involving an orc until Chapter 3 of The Two Towers. Then suddenly you're in their world, and it's a very different one from the world of Warhammer or D&D orcs. These are in their own way quite articulate ("Saruman is a fool, and a dirty treacherous fool"; "..., I daresay"; "You speak of what is deep beyond the reach of your muddy dreams..."; "Untie your legs? I'll untie every string in your bodies!"; "I'll cut you both to quivering shreds!"). They seem to know all about civilized life even if they despise it ("You'll get bed and breakfast alright..."; "What do you think? Sit on the grass and wait for the whiteskins to join the picnic?"). They are sarcastic ("Splendid!" "Fine leadership!"). They even seem to have a sense of comradeship and loyalty ("stout fellows"). 

That's when you remember that for Tolkien orcs are, of course, originally supposed to be twisted and corrupted elves. They are not green-skinned thugs. They're a warped vision of perfection. (Is it possible that they also live forever?)

It makes you wonder about dark elves, and "drow". It isn't really worth rehearsing all the many arguments one could have about drow, but perhaps worth considering: orcs and drow are in a sense the same thing. That closes off certain options but opens up a lot of others. If orcs were corrupted elves, what would that mean?

In classic D&D, elves have the following abilities:

-Detection of hidden doors
-Immunity to ghoul paralysis
-Spell casting
-Friendship with animals

So let's imagine orcs as things which can:

-Magically conceal any doorway or entrance
-Cause paralysis with a touch
-Dispel magical spells cast by others
-Destroy natural life, maybe by draining its essence in their surroundings?

This gives orcs more of a feeling of a creature from a fairy tale, but not one that is entirely displeasing. It certainly makes them seem more dangerous

29 comments:

  1. "Orc" in D&D is a particular thing. I love your alternative orc. But... but it isn't a D&D orc, is it? It needs a different name. Alf? Aluk? Something between "elf" and "orc."

    As far as drow go, I could never get into them. I knew I was supposed to like them, but I never did. They seem like a stupid idea to me.

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    1. No true believer really likes drow as far as I'm concerned.

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  2. An interesting idea, although I'm probably more in favor of orcs-as-race rather than orcs-as-foklore-fae, but for that last bullet, maybe some sort of adaptation from the Dark Sun rules regarding using life energy to power magic might work? Just a thought off the top of my head.

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    1. Yes, I had that in the back of my mind I think as I was writing that! Defilers, weren't they called?

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  3. Excellent post! Lord of the Rings is very re-readable, one always finds different things, especially when it comes to story-telling.

    To me, the Orc of D&D is an 8-bit generic monster. It is up to the DM to take these basic numbers and mechanics and make them flesh and bone. Make them more than just a random encounter, and give them culture and purpose beyond providing XP.

    I love it!

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  4. Part of me thinks that the last one should be control/corruption instead of draining. Instead of being friends with the animals of the forest, they control and twist away from the natural state of things.

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  5. Out of those four abilities only one of them really feels "Orc" to me, fir whatever that's worth. It's the last one, destroying natural life. I'm picturing bands of misshapen marauders, not one of them alike, laying warping their surroundings not only through their vile deeds but through their sheer presence. Like messengers of Chaos, or does that get too Warhammer?

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  6. I like aspects of this idea. For myself, orcs lack the free will of elves; they follow base destructive behaviours. They live in burnt-out ruins, or work dirty blast furnaces, defacing creation at every turn. Passively withering even flowers in their path, they go out of their way to deface statues, burn, destroy anything civilised or beautiful. Easily steered toward a goal is this compulsion to destroy, to deface, but with the industry nearing dwarves if not the craftsmanship.
    I think they do have resistance to magic; by their nature they go against the fabric of creation. Certainly there should be some magic that could be especially potent to them.
    Another question, what of orc zombies, skeletons, etc...? I think these may be surprising too. I agree with Ripper X, one needs to flesh out orcs to their own world.
    Whilst orcs have always seemed CE to me, maybe some NE, Drowned are LE, with the exceptions NE. There's certainly a lot to think about between the two as you point out, great thinking!

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  7. For "dark" elves, you need to read the Silmarillion. A dark elf brings about the fall of, well, spoilers and all that.

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    1. Well "dark elf" for Tolkien just means an elf who hasn't been to Valinor. Legolas is a dark elf. Maeglin is actually just as much a "light elf" as a "dark elf", don't you think? His father is Avari but his mother is a Noldor (if I remember correctly). I think what Tolkien was hinting at with Eol was that the Avari are corruptable because they heard the good news, as it were, but still refused to listen. That passed on to Maeglin.

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  8. Great observations. Not bigger goblins but corrupt elves. And more articulate than the stereotype: "I daresay..."

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  9. orcs that spend all their time asleep, apart from 4 hours a day of physical chaos

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    1. One thing I had forgotten but rediscovered reading The Two Towers is that elves don't really need to sleep. Legolas can apparently sleep while doing other things.

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  10. So how did we get to the D&D's dumb low grade runts & Warhammer's green clowns?

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    1. Not sure. I expect somebody has done a genealogy of the modern orc - or maybe it's waiting to be written. (You could do similar things with dwarfs and elves too.)

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  11. Sean Robert Meaney16 July 2017 at 16:25

    I considered the hobbits to be melkors spawn, given the darkness within Frodo isnt a result of the Wight's attack, rather it is something within all hobbit. Rather he is attracted to the light. The threat he poses to the bright ones across the sea at the end of lord of the rings is some long plan to disperse the light into the darkness rather than allow it to continue to be concentrated. Had Tolkien seen it himself, I cant say.

    Thats why the Orcs are a part of the big picture.

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  12. I've always assumed that orcs, being elves tortured into corruption, are all immortal. But as a rule their lives are violent and brutish so few live beyond a few decades.

    Maybe that ugly orc general depicted in The Return of The King film is several centuries old.

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    1. Good call. Maybe somewhere there are orcs who have been alive as long as Elrond.

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  13. Haven't visited your site for a couple months now, and soon as I do, I find gold. Totally stealing this idea...

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    1. You should be visiting it every day!

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  14. "The Uruk-hai" has always been my favourite chapter in The Lord of the Rings. And yes: the orcs aren't grunting beasts, but evil *soldiers* - and very like British soldiers in their speech patterns (I think Tolkien makes that link more explicit in some of his letters).

    One nitpick: I don't think it's quite right to say "for Tolkien orcs are, of course, originally supposed to be twisted and corrupted elves". He changed his mind so often on what orcs were that it's difficult to be sure what he thought they were at any particular point. Origins ranged from animated stone to "upgraded" animals to corrupted Maiar to corrupted Men; I think there were about a dozen possible origin stories in all. The elf one was published posthumously in the Silmarillion, but - from what I dimly remember - Tolkien himself eventually leaned towards mixed origins.

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    1. Interesting. Where does the "upgraded animals" idea come from? I have read some of the History of Middle Earth series but not an expert by a long shot.

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  15. I've recently been drawn to the 'deep time' aspect of Tolkien's elves; not just "I am two centuries old, human" but "I saw Black Ships before Troy; I walked with Moses when he was young." The kind of age that becomes staggering.

    Secondly, the terror that elves can induce in orks by their very presence (or their artefacts - Sam Gamgee in the tower of Cirith Ungol) is interesting. The otherworldliness or glamour that this encapsulates wasn't really visible when being portrayed by, say, Orlando Bloom. It might be almost angelic ("Fear not" implies something fearful) - something which gets downplayed a little against images of nature and the woodland realm. I can't really bring to mind an image of this on the tabletop either.

    Perhaps the inverse of the deep-time super-haughty elf is the cannon-fodder grovelling ork/goblin of post-Tolkien?

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    1. Nice comment. Galadriel definitely is described as almost like a demigod.

      Somewhere near the bottom of the list of books I'd like to write is a campaign setting "in the spirit of Tolkien" which de-D&D=ifies his legendarium - with the serial numbers filed off obviously - or even imagines what would have been if D&D had taken inspiration from the Silmarillion.

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  16. I just read Paul Anderson's The Broken Sword for the first time. (I know. I know. I've been meaning to for 30 years.) He sort of did the same thing for Trolls that your rereading of Tolkien did for Orcs. I think a lesson here is that smarter is almost always better, or at least more interesting. This post, Anderson's 1954 novel and Jeffro Johnson's Appendix N have gotten me to completely rethink my view of humanoid monsters.

    Not to get too political, but I think there's almost an "ableist" prejudice going on here. In modern fantasy, evil usually means ugly, which usually means stupid. Not only is that view itself stupid (as well as being quite unfair to evil monsters) but it's also boring.

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    1. I agree but think it is a bit more complex than that - there is also an "evil as beautiful/handsome trickster/enchantress/seducer" motif that is just as prevalent.

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  17. I read this post a day after I see a trailer for "Bright", a movie about an LA cop (Will Smith) who gets a new partner - who is an orc...

    Ancalagon

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