Awhile back I got an email from a reader which asked, “When are you going to write some real fantasy, y’know, with orcs?”
This is a paraphrase, because I didn’t get the reader’s permission to quote (I asked, no reply). But I’d say it’s pretty accurate as to its tone and implications, since the email went on to explain that the reader really really liked me and thought I was a good writer, but hated the fact that the stuff I write is labeled “epic fantasy” when it doesn’t resemble Tolkien much. In fact, the reader felt that this was why my work has been less successful than that of other epic fantasy writers who do resemble Tolkien more. (There was a list of writers who fit this criterion.) So the reader, being helpful, wanted to suggest some things I could do to remedy this gaping disjunct. Just add orcs, a dragon, some runes and maybe elves to write them, shake don’t stir… instant bestseller. Oh, and it went without saying that I should at least consider writing a novel set in a nice comforting medieval Europeish setting — though of course the reader hoped I would still put my own “unique spin” on it.
There’s a lot of things I could say about this letter. So. Many. Things. But I’ll stick to the part about the orcs.
I have a problem with orcs. I’m orc-averse, you might say; even orcophobic. I know, I know, orcs are everywhere in fantasy; from Tolkien to Warhammer; by saying I hate orcs I invite the wrath of… well, the fannish horde. (Groan. Sorry.) But here’s something I want you to think about: what are orcs?
Seriously. In most of the fantasy works I’ve consumed, orcs are violent, mindless or less intelligent than human beings, brutal and thuggish and Always Chaotic Evil. But these are adjectives, not nouns. All mythological creatures have a real-world root. Dryads are trees + humans + magic. Mermaids are fish + humans + magic, or maybe porpoises + magic. Unicorns are deer or horses + magic, maybe with a bit of narwhal glued on. Dragons are reptiles + magic, or maybe dinosaur bones + magic – paleontology. So again: what are orcs supposed to be?
Tolkien gave several explanations for his orcs, and the one Peter Jackson built into his film adaptations seems to be the one most fans espouse: elves + bad magic. Elves themselves can be viewed as humans + magic, or humans + divinity as the case might be; find a Tolkien scholar if you want to get into the nitty gritty of that. Tolkien himself drew on European history and mythology, so there’s a number of possible sources from which he might have drawn the inspiration for orcs — like the old Norse nithings, and of course the scarier, grittier parts of Celtic faerie folklore. Bottom line: in nearly every iteration of orcs that occurs in fantasy, orcs are meant to be a warped mirror of humanity. They’ve got all the stuff that’s in humans — emotions, a degree of intellect, sometimes free will — but it’s all wrong. They’re corrupted by evil magic or environmental degradation or their own hubris. In some iterations orcs are sexually perverse, so we’ve got bad genetics to consider too. They are human bodies + bad magic – the essence of humanity, for whatever value that essence might hold: a soul, a mind, aestheticism, whatever. And therefore, in most fantasy settings in which I’ve seen orcs appear, they are fit only for one thing: to be mowed down, usually on sight and sans negotiation, by Our Heroes. Orcs are human beings who can be slaughtered without conscience or apology.
Think about that. Creatures that look like people, but aren’t really. Kinda-sorta-people, who aren’t worthy of even the most basic moral considerations, like the right to exist. Only way to deal with them is to control them utterly a la slavery, or wipe them all out.
Huh. Sounds familiar.
So maybe now you can understand why I’m not very interested in writing about orcs.
Now, I’m aware that there have been some attempts to reclaim or reinvent orcs as “just misunderstood” in the past few years, and I commend those efforts — although I don’t think I’ve seen one yet that really worked for me. I love the fact that for awhile, “orcing” became slang for SFF fans of color getting pissed off at authors’ racefails… but there’s a reason that slang caught on, and there’s a reason it was as painful as it was funny when we used it. It was a reclamation, but also an acknowledgement. Thing is, when orcs are pulled far enough from their European folkloric roots — or more modern associations with same, like Tolkien’s — I can enjoy them, at least for awhile*. Until I start to think about what I’m doing. Then I realize the whole concept of orcs is irredeemable. Orcs are fruit of the poison vine that is human fear of “the Other”. In games like Dungeons & Dragons, orcs are a “fun” way to bring faceless savage dark hordes into a fantasy setting and then gleefully go genocidal on them. In fiction, even telling the story from the dark hordes’ PoV, or explaining why they’re so… orcish… doesn’t change the fact that they’re an amalgamation of stereotypes. And to me, that’s no fun at all.
So if orcs are what’s necessary for me to be considered a “real fantasy” writer by some readers, then I guess both they and I will just be shit outta luck for the duration of my writing career. Oh, well.
* But the reason I liked Dragon Age: Awakening is because it interrogated the whole concept of darkspawn-as-mindless-horde as introduced in DA:Origins. The gameplay allowed for a real question as to whether these creatures — which in the DA universe are derived from sentient, free-willed beings tainted and controlled by a vengeful god — could have their own goals or want to be free of the compulsion that drives them. And the reason I liked Dragon Age 2 better than both previous games is because the darkspawn weren’t the enemy at all.