Always Chaotic Evil- Confronting My Anti-Orc Bias

I’m a fantasy racist. There I admit it. It’s not entirely my fault. It’s what I was taught. From an early age, my fantasy godfathers and godmothers (well, mostly fathers actually), raised me to despise Goblins, Orcs, Trollocs and a host of other sub-human beings who tend to congregate in throngs, masses and “teeming hordes.” Let’s face it, when was the last time you met a “horde” that was “teeming” with good intentions? Right. I thought so. Vicious, mindless, perverse, prone to mayhem, pillaging and not above stewing other sentient beings in a cooking pot, I came to learn that there were precious few worthy qualities about any of them. The only good Orc is a dead Orc! Right….?

In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, during the Third Age and the War of the Ring, the lines between good and bad guys were pretty well established. While the noble “free” men of the West fought alongside the uber-fair-skinned Elves and Gandalf the White, “out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues” joined the “dark-skinned” Easterlings to ally with the evil Sauron. But hey, at least they weren’t full-time evil. In Tolkien’s universe, these weak-minded men of the South and East were just hood-winked and bamboozled by the Dark Lord (He who Sits on His Dark Throne), cut off from the almost “Christ-like” light of Maiar colonial missionaries. Though choosing the wrong-side of the spat over mystical jewelry, they are allowed to surrender at the end and are eventually “pardoned” by the wise and honorable white guys of Gondor. Not so for their Orcish and non-human allies, who are hunted down and killed with nary a shred of remorse. In fact, throughout the saga it’s made plain that Orc lives come cheap. The “good guys” have no qualms about holding a good ol’ fashioned “Orc-hunt” and gleefully rack up competitive points based on how many Orc-heads can be separated from Orc-bodies. The only good Orc….

The folks at tvtropes define these fictional characters, so common to the fantasy genre, under the role-playing appropriated heading, Always Chaotic Evil (ACE). As they explain, this is usually “the notion of not an organization, not a clan, not a city, but an entire race of bad guys who brag about how Evil they are.” Unlike their human counterparts, differences in ethos among ACE are non-existent; rather “all of the racial members” of such groups “behave evilly.” ACE beings are usually the creation of some bigger bad guy (or malevolent forces), a “ruined race” brought into existence for the sole purpose of carrying out all the general nastiness that needs doing–nullifying the existence of any familial structure (not to mention ovaries; ACE are usually all-male) or children, because slaying little Orc kids would be kinda douchey. This allows for near acts of ACE racial-genocide and wholesale ACE ethnic-cleansing–or at least restricting them to the usually non-arable segregated regions of the realm… where they belong!

Do I really need to spell out the metaphors to our real world here and all that’s wrong with it? It doesn’t help that these ACE are usually not only sub-human and near bestial, but as in the case of Orcs, by Tolkien’s own words, are “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.” Cringe. Cringe. And more… Cringe. There’s a line of thought that Tolkien was merely pulling from European medieval texts, who used such unflattering terms to describe the Mongols, Moors, Saracens and other “foreign” armies they encountered. Take for instance the semi-mythical Frankish Song of Roland:

And Ethiope, a cursed land indeed; The blackamoors from there are in his keep, Broad in the nose they are and flat in the ear, Fifty thousand and more in company. These canter forth with arrogance and heat, Then they cry out the pagans’ rallying-cheer;

Yeah…transcribing ethnocentric medieval descriptions of human differences into fictional sub-human monsters…still *cringe* worthy.

But before I get up on my soapbox, I should make a confession–I’m also a flagrant offender. After all, it’s what I grew up on. So it shouldn’t be surprising that in some of my own forays into fantasy, I’ve followed suit–with whole new Mooks for my heroes and heroines to “mow down with impunity.” In at least one of my published fantasy shorts, there’s an entire corps of ACE who, naturally, make up the bulk of the bad guy’s army. Inspired by varied African folklore, they’re definitively not Orcs–nor are they based on any existing human phenotypic differences. No “tall, broad-chested, sharp-nosed, pale-skinned, with thin mouths and blue eyes degraded and repulsive versions of the (to POC) least lovely Caucasian-types” in my stories…cuz that would be ridiculous. But they’re certainly distant relations of Orcs, with all the requisite unsavory characteristics. It’s not advisable you invite them over for coffee or let them take your daughter to prom.

My ability to so easily create such similar characters out of another cultural reference highlights one of the key reasons ACEs exists in the first place–they’re nothing new. Whether we’re talking about the cast-out angels of the Abrahamic faiths, the rather unpleasant Rakshasa demons in Buddhism and Hinduism, flesh-eating ghuls of Arabian folklore, the misshapen Nunashish and other malevolent spirits of varied Native American beliefs, finding a menagerie of mystical baddies across the human cultural map isn’t very hard. They exist in our mythologies and religions. Perhaps they’re the natural products of our fears of the dark, the night and the unknown. Or maybe they represent our need for cosmological duality–good and bad, light and dark, order and chaos. Whatever the case, they all make for easy appropriation into fantasy “races” who generally get off on doing really nasty things to others. Because let’s face it, they’re monsters.

And may the ghost of Edward Said forgive me, but I like em’! I want a “teeming horde” of baddies that make readers shiver, that can’t be reasoned or bargained with, that don’t want anything but your utter destruction. I want stand-ins for our fears of what lurk in the dark unexplored places, whose possible victory won’t just be a change of who’s in charge, but the end of mankind’s tenuous reign. I want a slew of bad guys who I don’t morally mind getting cleaved in two or run through by a spear. I don’t want to have to think about whether Orcs have families, or worse yet, if Orcs have feeeeeelllinnnnngs. Blech! I just want them to represent an impending malevolent threat to civilization, while my heroes and heroines hack, slash and butcher them in righteous mayhem. It’s fun. It’s guilt-free. And best of all, it’s easy.

Still, I do wonder… in the midst of all these dreamt up orgies of violence, do Orcs ever beg for mercy? What if they did have kids and wives to plead for before taking that battle-axe to the neck? What if on the Pelennor Fields they lay moaning and crying out for their mothers and wept they didn’t want to die? But then they wouldn’t be just monsters any more would they? And my near-genocidal fantasies wouldn’t seem all that heroic either. Humanizing an enemy always complicates the moral justifications of killing, even in our fictional wars. Arrrgh! Damn you critical thinking brain!

A few writers have broached these issues, offering at least slightly alternative perspectives on ACEs. One of the more common tropes that arises is the “good one,” wherein even if 99% of the ACE race is evil, there’s an individual who can break ranks. Ridiculously condescending, yes. But it also leaves open the possibility that their “evil” perhaps isn’t genetic and they’re as redemptive as any human. R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden for instance is a Drow (dark elf) who, unlike the other members of his ebon-skinned brethren, forsakes evil and joins the good guys–a virtual “credit to his race.” In Terry Brooks world of Shannara, the short, twisted, yellow-skinned race of Gnomes aren’t exactly ACEs, but they are generally prone to superstition, primitive, war-like and have a habit of either allying with (or getting enslaved into) the big bad guys’ armies. Still, in rare exceptions, a few might give up their normally bad ways or even become pacifists like the healer Stors. The Draconians of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance realms, while overwhelmingly ACE, do have a few noble members who also abandon the general evil ethos that marks their race.

Other writers have attempted to even tell tales from the POV of ACEs. John Gardner’s Grendel, while still leaving him a human-eating monster, at the least makes him a rather self-reflective one, searching for some semblance of philosophical truth. Set in the same D&D-based Forgotten Realms of Drizzt Do’Urden, The Orc King follows the attempts of a war-weary Orc chieftain trying to reform his fellow ACE hordes who, though by nature exhibit generally “uncivilized” behavior, are at least redeemable. One of the most daring attempts is Stan Nicholls Orcs, which manages to make complex ACEs out of its Orc protagonists, gives a reason for their actions (encroaching warring humans), bestows them with actual personalities and pits them against their own evil big bad guy gal; there’s even another world run wholly by Orcs and wait for it…female Orcs!

These attempts still have their problems. At most, they don’t alter the general stereotypes of ACEs so much as muddle them. Still, for someone like me who has at least become aware of his own anti-Orc bias, it’s at least a start. Don’t mean I won’t bash an Orc good with my mace if I see one on the subway! But hey, at least I’ll think about it first.

16 thoughts on “Always Chaotic Evil- Confronting My Anti-Orc Bias

  1. In my novel series ‘Tales from the Long Road’ I paint a different picture of the various human and non-human races. Much like life, there are no ‘good or bad guys’ it just depends on what side of the ‘Tribal Line’ you’re standing on. Everything’s all good when everyone’s common interests move in the same direction, but when they don’t….

    After I got into college, I quick ‘cashed out’ of that whole ‘humans good, everything else bad except for elves’ crap. If you take a serious look at Orc Society, it’s a viable system for a culture in which raiding is the primary means of subsistence. The Vikings, Tuareg, Huns, Vandals, Romans and Mongols are just a few very successful raiding societies. I include the Tuareg because unlike all the others except the Mongols to a degree still exist and continue their way of life. Among raiders, the most resourceful and strongest will rule. So why is that not considered an Orcish virtue? The Nazi’s and other Facist regimes rule(d) through fear and intimidation and found virtue in it from their perspective by calling it ‘order’.

    The only reason others find raiding cultures ‘evil’ is because they’re getting their asses handed to them. In the film “King Arthur” the Saxon Warlord stopped his man from raping an English woman not because he thought rape was bad, but that she was of an ‘inferior race’ and the offspring would be a ‘half-person’. Far as Orcs are concerned, if you’re not an Orc, you’re inferior. To their minds is obvious because they can come and take your goods and peoples whenever they feel like it and you are unable to stop them. That damn sure was the Roman mentality until their fall.

    So why don’t Orcs just learn to trade with their human and elven neighbors? What the hell for? They aren’t Orcs! Just take what they have or force them to pay tribute to keep you from burning their villages to the ground. Far as the Orcs are concerned, humans and elves are evil. They take land that doesn’t belong to them and cut down the trees for their farms, or don’t allow any cutting of trees for firewood or allow the killing of game in the forests. Think about how bears operate; stuff is there and when you find it you eat it if it’s good. Don’t let anything smaller than you run you off a good food source and use all of your strength to get at said source. That means if a bear smells food in your car or house, it’s going to try and get at it unless you give it a damn good reason not to. If you can’t it’s going to eat you and the food. Orcs are no different. The American Indians saw the world the same way as the Bear and Wolf did. That’s why when settlers moved into their lands without permission, they took what they wanted from them. Orcish culture is the same way.

    Really all that stuff in European based fantasy is just that, ‘fantasy’. All the imagery of evil dark ‘boogey-men’ are just tools to scare their readers. Because, for some reason European types can’t find individuals that look exactly like them who extoll all the virtues they do like say an ‘American Psycho’ as frightening as a filthy, dark-skinned ‘oogaddy-boogaddy’. So understanding the Orcish culture, you have to deal with them like the Bear. You give them a damn good reason not to think they can come and take what they want when you deal with them and leave all the ‘Boogey-men’ crap at home.

    • whew! now that’s a *comment!* thanks for the words. glad my little ramblings could inspire/spark that much thought. more here than i can possibly tackle, but i think u make an intriguing point about “raider” cultures. that’s a very interesting look at Orcs (and Orc-like beings), and fitting them into representations of Mongols, more horse-men nomadic lifestyles, etc. of note, the word “horde” itself comes from the Tartar/Turkic “urda” or “ordu” which meant camp or army. In medieval times, Tartar and Turkic-Mongolian raiders wreaked havoc on much of Eastern Europe and Central (modern day Russia) Eurasia. It’s likely the word “horde” (it acquired the “h” from the Polish) may have entered western imaginations thru the 13th entury Mongolian-Turkic khanate, often referred to as The Great Horde or The Golden Horde.

    • Firstly, a lot of these are nitpicks, just want to say I liked your comment and agree with most of what you have to say.

      However …

      “that whole ‘humans good, everything else bad except for elves’ crap”

      You forgot the dwarves :P

      “The only reason others find raiding cultures ‘evil’ is because they’re getting their asses handed to them.”

      Well. I’m pretty sure that any culture that wasn’t dehumanizing the victims would find their behavior … well, evil. For some definitions of “evil”, at least.

      “In the film “King Arthur” the Saxon Warlord stopped his man from raping an English woman not because he thought rape was bad, but that she was of an ‘inferior race’ and the offspring would be a ‘half-person’. Far as Orcs are concerned, if you’re not an Orc, you’re inferior. To their minds is obvious because they can come and take your goods and peoples whenever they feel like it and you are unable to stop them. That damn sure was the Roman mentality until their fall.”

      Ah, no. Romans were pretty good about absorbing conquered peoples, actually. Kill the leaders, replace ‘em with your own, give the nobles the vote, tell the priests their gods are really aspects of our gods, build a few roads to maintain your overwhelming military superiority … pretty soon they’re as Roman as the guys who beat them. Of course, they keep getting raided by these barbarians …

      “The American Indians saw the world the same way as the Bear and Wolf did. That’s why when settlers moved into their lands without permission, they took what they wanted from them.”

      Are you sure? That’s not really my field, but you might want to watch out that you’re not forcing them into the pattern you’ve already noticed. Just a thought. Of course, for all I know you’re a well-known expert in Native American Anthropology.

      “Because, for some reason European types can’t find individuals that look exactly like them who extoll all the virtues they do like say an ‘American Psycho’ as frightening as a filthy, dark-skinned ‘oogaddy-boogaddy’.”

      Curiously, a LOT of newer monsters fit exactly that description – they look like us now. Perhaps the result of a shift in cultural mores?

  2. And yet even Tolkien was at least ambivalent about the nature of orcs. In a letter (No. 153) he stated that while orcs might be nearly irredeemable that once created (really made as they were elves twisted by Morgoth), they became part of God’s creation and that was a good thing.

    And yet I’d still want to mace bash them too.

    • Good point! Tolkien indeed helps set the groundwork (though he didn’t invent it) of a common trope of ACE–the “ruined” race, in this case elves who are tortured and twisted into perverse mockeries of their true selves. He calls them “rational incarnate” creatures, though terribly corrupted. “The Shadow that bred them [Orcs] can only mock, it cannot make real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them.”–Frodo. I don’t remember him saying this was a “good thing”…but I’ll have to go back and read that long winding letter to that Catholic bookshop keeper who took Tom Bombadil waaaaay too seriously.

  3. Pingback: E is for Embellish: Jackson’s Unexpected Hobbit | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

  4. “One of the most daring attempts is Stan Nicholls Orcs, which manages to make complex ACEs out of its Orc protagonists, gives a reason for their actions (encroaching warring humans), bestows them with actual personalities and pits them against their own evil big bad guy gal; there’s even another world run wholly by Orcs and wait for it…female Orcs!”

    I was quite interested by the idea … and then I read the damn thing and it sucked. Quite a lot, actually. Shame, there were a few good ideas in there, but sadly very little came of them.

    Oh, and, um, good post and all that.

  5. Good post however I was wondering if you could write a
    litte more on this topic? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Many thanks!

  6. Pingback: Fantasy’s “Othering” Fetish | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

  7. I strangely enough always liked orcs. They raised interesting questions of redemption. I also liked how different they looked from me (Caucasian, Celtic), cause I thought that they looked cool. They also seemed very much like predators to our prey, and were definitely higher on the food chain in terms of strength than normal humans. Of course, I never liked elves as a kind. Thought they were kinda creepy and stuck up to be honest. Plus, blue eyes, blond hair, tall and pale? Seriously? I instantly thought about beardless Germanic tribesmen living in forests raiding and hunting for a living. You’re telling me elves don’t farm, ranch, or hunt? What the hell does that leave them, gathering? How can they maintain a population solely on gathering? I call bullshit! But yeah orcs were always really relate able to me, because humans and elves in fiction are so perfect. I need flaws, large ones, in my fantasy societies and individuals, just like reallife. So I always loved morally neutral or good orcs in stories just as much as bad ones. Cause, let’s face it, orcish tribes from Tolkien are Ancient Greek city states without the philosophy and pedophilia. They’re also intelligent but lazy (according to the hobbit) and only serve evil cause its the best way to survive.

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