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.
54 thoughts on “From the Mailbag: The Unbearable Baggage of Orcing”
Yes, absolutely. Orcs are a MUST for any “real fantasy” series. I mean, I’m reading the Temeraire series from Naomi Novik and that’s full of orcs…oh, wait. No, it’s not. Bad example.
Of course then there’s the Kushiel Universe series by Jacqueline Carey that contains nothing but…oh, yeah. No orcs there either.
Well, the Metal Dragon series Jaida Jones & Danielle Bennett is all…umm, opps. No orcs there either.
Nor are there orcs in any of the books I’ve read by from Karen Miller, Robert V.S. Redick, Rowena Cory Daniels, Glenda Larke, Kevin J Anderson, Rachel Neumeier, K.E. Mills (OK, that’s cheating, that’s Karen Miller’s nom de plume), nor scores of other what I consider successful fantasy writers.
Nice article, thank you very much for it! \o/
Well, Darryl, all those authors you mentioned are women. In the list of “real fantasy authors” that the email contained, there were no women. Which explains why some readers think women can’t write fantasy! Women don’t use enough orcs, see.
Hmmm…that makes the zombie the modern-day equivalent of the orc, doesn’t it? At any rate, don’t you DARE be like everybody else! I love Tolkien, don’t get me wrong, but let’s move on for heaven sake! Tolkien was bold for his day and age because he treated European mythology seriously and went beyond the classical Greek mythology. Guess what? The rest of the world has a rich mythological tradition too. In fact, I’d dare say a richer tradition than European. The lack of variety is killing the fantasy genre. Thank you, Ms. Jemisin, for expanding the fantasy universe.
Hey, my list has Redick and Anderson on it. ;)
That’s an interesting question. I know that zombies are supposedly rooted in Haitian voudoun myth, but zombies as they’re currently popular in Western lit have been pretty much stripped of their cultural roots. They strike me less as fear of the Other and more as fear of consumerism, literally and figuratively. Most fantasy worlds don’t threaten humans with becoming orcs — hmm, maybe that’s another reason why the Dragon Age darkspawn don’t feel quite orcish to me — but the horror of zombies is that you can join them, and consume mindlessly as they do. And I think there’s something to the way so many recent zombie movies and novels and games pass through icons of American consumerism: shopping malls, city centers, suburbs. (I kinda think this is what Key & Peele were getting at.
Well, if it comes down to a vote, I’m voting for you to add in some sharks with lasers..
This always bothered me about fantasy works, and is part of the reason why I have such a hard time reading the ‘traditional’ fantasy works. The most recent example is Robert Jordan and the trollocs (ugh). There are scenes where the people talk about trollocs having language and society and even emotions, but Trollocs Are Bad so they’re murdered with impunity. In my head I would always go “Are they *all* evil, murderous, hateful beings or are they just different? Are their motivations just not understood by you, so they have to be killed? How sad.”
So, thank you putting words to those inarticulate thoughts.
And further, thank you for liking Dragon Age 2 so much! You’ve inspired me to play it again, and I remembered just how much more interesting it was than the first. Especially because of what you bring up at the end of the post, Dragon Age 2 made the world feel so much more real and interesting instead of the largely generic setting of the first clad in new trappings.
As many problems as WoW has, its Orcs aren’t faceless OR evil… so that’s at least one fantasy setting that does them well?
Amanda, I’ve never played WoW, so others will have to speak to that. But I did play the Warcraft games prior to WoW, and those orcs certainly were faceless and evil; the whole point of the game was to wipe them out.
Like Rebecca, I am sick to death of the narrow way some writers envisage the possible worlds for epic fantasy. And I don’t react well to faceless hordes of enemies in any context. But everyone has already said these things, and I wouldn’t bother repeating them except that I also want to tell you how much I love your formulation of dragons as “dinosaur bones + magic – paleontology.” Thank you for that.
Your fantasy seems pretty epic to me, ma’am. :)
This is one of the reasons I prefer the broad, pretentious phrase “speculative fiction” — it’s less laden with inherent definitions and reader expectations. A lot of people don’t like the spec fic label, however.
In any case, your thesis re: orcs is dead on. I’ve always felt they were a sketchy trope; this post articulates the why of that feeling.
This is why I adore Carey’s Banewreaker duology so much. The entire series exists to tear down these tropes. One of my favorite moments was when the elven princess is confronted with the fact a ‘brave battle against the evil enemy’ was a massacre where whole villages were slaughtered, and the people mourn the dead as one would victims of any holocaust.
And I also adore any book where the ‘good guys’ end up shooting an unarmed man in the back because he was running away and bad…
When I first started giving serious thought to writing, I dismissed the idea of using orcs as being too much like cribbing from Tolkien’s notes. Or from D&D, specifically Forgotten Realms, which I’m more familiar with. And then, while reading advice on writer, one author noted how Tolkien’s orcs were ‘swarthy with slanted eyes’, and… Yeah, ok, don’t want THAT kinda thing in my work either.
Elves and dwarves I like better, in any case, and they have more obvious mythological roots, but even there I go back and forth on using them…
Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman wrote a trilogy, Sovereign Stone, which featured orcs as a major race along with humans, elves and dwarves. Humans were pretty much a McEurope, elves were aristocratic xenophobes, dwarves were pony-riding nomads, and orcs were seagoing traders. So, a break from stereotype. Yay!… Except you later find out that orcs aren’t exactly trustworthy. If you buy merchandise from them and hang around too long after, they have no qualms about stealing the stuff back and reselling it. Funny ideas about ownership, supposedly. Also, they’re highly superstitious and, for example, don’t keep vows sworn on a Wednesday, because Wednesdays are bad luck. Or something. And the text wasn’t clear whether this was all honest belief or just the orcs making stuff up to suit themselves.
Either way, the Other is portrayed as inherently untrustworthy. Not good.
I can speak to WoW, the orcs there aren’t so much a faceless horde any more. They are, however, often portrayed as aggressive, brutal, bloodthirsty. Their current leader exemplifies and encourages this. But there’s actually a clash of ideologies at play. Some orcs follow Thrall’s teachings of honour, compassion, and shamanism. Others follow his successor, Garrosh, the current leader.
For a while there was an interesting symmetry. The supposedly brutish Horde were led by an honourable, compassionate orc, while the supposedly noble Alliance were led by a hot-headed, aggressive human king. But where the king is growing up, the Horde leadership changes hands and things go bad… The aggressive Horde from the early games, btw, were demon corrupted, which made them green. Untainted orcs are brown. Kinda Noble Savagey too, I guess.
Personally, if I were to write orcs it’d be only because they are ‘familiar’ to readers… But I’d have to change them so much I might as well just create something new.
I’ll second the recommendation of Carey’s books as a wonderful example of taking those classic fantasy tropes and presenting the other side of the story.
Another, much less well known book you might find interesting to look at is “The Sorceress’s Orc” by Elaine Corvidae.
Hi there. I just want to comment here first to say that I think you are a truly fantastic writer. A couple of months ago I was browsing the library fantasy section and randomly picked out, ‘The hundred thousand kingdoms.’ It quite honestly blew me away and was the best book I read last year. Truly fantastic, original plot and I fell fatally in love with Nahadoth *swoon*. I haven’t been that crazy about a character in a while, hehe. So thank you very much from the bottom of my heart, for writing such a fantastic novel and making such a devastatingly beautiful character!
Now in relation to the post in question – its funny because what that person requested is exactly what I dislike about modern fantasy. I am a writer myself and in my mind what makes fantasy so brilliant is the uniqueness and creativity it allows. What I hate and find incredibly frustrating, is that so many successful writers are tolkien rip offs and follow the basic formulaic plot of ‘fellowship forms to defeat evil.’ What made Tolkien’s writing so fantastic at the time was that it was completely original in its own right. He formed his own mythology that was totally unique…Now people can basically rehash that plot and publishers will take it on because that is what sells…Sometimes I feel that being a unique writer you are actually penalised. I have had a few stories published but my novels have never been accepted because I am told ‘they cannot be marketed, they won’t sell’. And yet if you were to rehash tokien’s work you could get published…it is intolerably frustrating to me! Thank you for making this post and addressing these points!
::chuckle:: Well, IMO nearly every culture has some variant on dragons — giant serpents, whatever. I figure that’s because ancient peoples dug up a few dinosaur fossils, went “WTF?” and came up with stories to explain them. But I don’t know if there’s any truth to that theory.
wrt to the orcs in WoW, even with the nuances that named NPCs and player characters CAN give them, there’s still a lot of racial coding set up within their portrayal – basic stuff like their dances (MC Hammer for dudes, twerking for ladies), or the clumsily handled tensions between the non-demon tainted orcs in Outlands, and the green-skinned Horde. I can absolutely believe the developers didn’t mean to fall into those patterns, but they did because the history of orc=other is so strong that they repeated it, knowingly or not.
That’s not even touching trolls or tauren, which have plenty of issues on their own.
This definitely calls for a pointer to
which is a translation of “The Last Ringbearer”, a Russian retelling of LOTR which is at least in part from the Orc perspective.
I haven’t read it yet, but several friends have recommended it highly…
(I’m pointing that out because it seems to have “better orcs” as mentioned in this discussion, not because I agree that NKJ’s books need orcs – they don’t :) )
I have a lot of books, which yes, does include a lot of european tolkienesque fantasy but also a lot of non-european like Aliette de Bodard, Amanda Downum, Martha Wells which i like reading even more because they introduce me to new ideas and concepts, how the same is different (forts, hereditary rulership, religion, taboo, family, marriage, revolution, farming) and can turn the familiar on it’s head when some of these things are viewed in a different way. Sometimes I like the familiar (ie dragons, elves, magical mcguffin, quest), sometimes i like the new. Reading the Tolkinesque all the time would be like having roast chicken dinners everyday, even if it was your favourite, wouldn’t you be sick of it by the 100th time you had read it? Variety is the spice of life people!
I would like to post this link for people who would like to read stuff that defies the conventions http://booktionary.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/recommendations-non-european-fantasy-by.html
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I have a reputation among my friends as “the guy who worries about Gondor oppressing the remaining orcs post-LotR,” so I am 100% on board with this post. At the risk of indulging in fan-squee, I think that one of the things that makes your books (the ones I’ve had time to read so far, anyway — still catching up!) so appealing is that they’re so unabashedly consistent, on all levels, with the essence of what makes fantasy an interesting and worthwhile genre — while throwing out all of the superficial markers of fantasy like orcs. (Though I admit I might have to make my own map of your world, as that’s one of the Standard Fantasy Elements that I have a strong personal attachment to.)
You may be right about dragons and dinosaur bones. I read once that the Cyclops myth started when someone found a woolly mammoth skull and thought the giant hole at thefont (for the trunk) was an eye socket….
I would love to hear your view of Christopher Paolini’s take on orcs, the Urgals.
I would have to say that I have never in 40 years of reading fantasy heard or felt that the lack of or inclusion of Orc’s was a determination for classification as Epic Fantasy.
I for one am happy to leave the Orc’s behind. Yes Tolkein had Orc’s, and Jordan had the Trollocs, in fantasy where the myth and story support the orc, it can worc, but where they are added in because fantasy needs an orc, a dwarf and an elf, count me out.
In addition to the female authors listed above, Brandon Sanderson, Brent Weeks, Patrick Rothfuss, George RR martin, Tad Williams, David Eddings …
I think I was more concerned with the suggestion that you “consider writing a novel set in a nice comforting medieval Europeish setting” I think if your story called for some orc like creatures, you would make it work, in some new and interesting way. I am one reader saying please continue to write Epic fantasy in anything other than medieval Europeish setting’s.
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As many of the examples for non-Orcish fantasy cited above show, women writers do seem to be more open to leave the “traditional” field – possibly because they themselves are often considered “Other” in comparison to male writers?
I’m pretty sure my own first exposure to fantasy (other than fairy tales) was Tamora Pierce – and one of my favorite things about her stories (in addition to great female characters & non-traditional romances) was how no enemy was 100% evil. Best example for this are the Stormwings in the Immortals quartet, where the heroine’s own prejudices (because they were The Big Bad in book 1) are confronted and subverted by a young girl’s friendship with one of the Stormwings. So I didn’t encounter orcs until years later – and now that I think about it, most of the fantasy I enjoy is completely orc-free…
Mike – of course, I agree that her writing does not suffer from a lack of orcs.
Terry Pratchett deals with orcs in a way I love. Emphasis on their love of poetry, their being forced – not born – into evil, and the idea that they are likely bred from men because “only mankind has the wanton capacity for such evil.”
Directly from http://wiki.lspace.org/mediawiki/index.php/Orcs:
“On the Disc, however, although the popular conception is of orcs as we understand them, the only one we’ve met so far in the entire canon is Mr Nutt, who is the protagonist of Unseen Academicals, during the course of which he explodes all these myths. He is intelligent, well-read and capable of feats of love and poetry.
“The Orcs seem to have been used as intelligent weapons by a sinister force just as they are in The Lord of the Rings: they fight with ferocity, so long as a guiding ‘will’ (e.g., Morgoth or Sauron) compels/directs them. In some places, Tolkien describes Orcs as mainly being battle fodder. Dr Hix has a way of seeing the creatures in battle and they are terrible and deadly, but there are whips driving them on. It is not necessarily an inherent evil but a forced one.
“In a twist on Tolkien’s vision of their begetting, whilst the common view is that they are warped goblins, Lord Vetinari comments that they must have been bred from men, because only mankind has the wanton capacity for such evil evinced by the orcs in the Dark Wars that enslaved large areas.”
Oh, and regarding the origins of zombie – I know they’re most popularly connected with Haiti, but at uni I wrote a paper about the zombie phenomenon in modern South Africa and Cameroon as a reaction to modern pressures on working people from various cultural and ethnic background who often have in common a feeling of helplessness and exploitation. An interesting parallel to the Western zombie craze…
Just a side-note because I hardly ever get to dust off my anthrolopology these days. :)
“As many of the examples for non-Orcish fantasy cited above show, women writers do seem to be more open to leave the “traditional” field – possibly because they themselves are often considered “Other” in comparison to male writers?”
Awesome point, Evamaria. It’s uninteresting/difficult/downright disgusting at times to interact with these tropes that stem from oppression of your gender or ethnicity. When N.K. laid that out in her post, I got the squicks all over! *shudder*
Really, the idea of “monsters” in traditional fantasy (books and especially video games) is deeply patriarchal and supportive of male power. Male power is preserved through violence, and these works use violence as a way to showcase a character’s skill, competence, or moral superiority. The main characters win, and the story is advanced, by fighting and killing.
However, killing requires justification to be seen as righteous, so these works of fiction have to create an entire class of people or creatures that it’s permissible to slaughter – orcs, hordes, monsters, or anything “evil.” Think about leveling up by fighting an Otherized enemy – your avatar becomes edified by destroying living things. And yet these are the kinds of things that we spend our recreational time fantasizing and dreaming about. That is profoundly messed up.
I wholeheartedly support fantasy books and games that reject patriarchal values and the celebration of violence in order to explore other possibilities in the genre. That is one reason why I was drawn to the 100 Thousand Kingdoms and Dreamblood. N.K, thank you so much for striving to show us a different kind of world!
That is the dumbest excuse for not throwing in Orcs I have ever heard. I have not read your books, and after this drivel, I never will.
Do you think ‘orcs’ would get better treatement, and longer lives, if Tolkien had managed to copyright that word, and every writer who used them had to come up with a unique name for ‘the evil horde who are just like us but evil and violent, so we have to hack them to death by the dozens’? Imagine every tolklone having to spend half a page explain to the reader why these people with swords have to kill those people with axes. And why the people with axes are the violent evil ones, when the sword people kill dozens every chapter.
Written one fantasy novel (well, two that from a complete duology, but second is still with publisher.) (Tainted souls – Allan T Price – Smashwords) which features no orcs, dwarves or elves. Does feature a race that humans think are honorless barbarians, who think the same thing about humans.
But I confess I might have rocs, or similar, in a novel I write. As either
a)something that humans become if they do the wrong things. So our blond haired hero might start off killing orcs, and end up an orc, trying to make humans listen to him before they hack him down. (Briefly had a DnD campaign, with floating mushroom caps that produced stuff like honey, so nutritious that one floating cap could sustain three man-sized creatures. Which explained what most of my monsters ate. The rest ate other monsters. Characters could also eat it, but they’d turn into orcs and goblins.)
b)a race that is just like humans, but they’ve been rejected (cursed?) by the goddess of agriculture [I have twelve female goddesses, opposed by many male demon lords] so that crops they plant will not grow and domesticated animals they care for are sterile. (Remember – Fantasy novel, not a historical/biological one.)
So, while some orcs would like to grow barley and raise pigs, they are forced to either live as hunter gatherers or raid the people that the goddess shines her blessings upon. And, so far, no humans has bothered to find out WHY Orcs are raiders.
Not sure what will happen when someone bothers to ask. Can they get the goddess to change her mind? What if she shines her blessings on orcs, INSTEAD of humans?
[if someone ‘steals’ either idea, I’d like a 10% cut of any profits.]
Jeremy, I’m afraid you’re a little off-topic. We were discussing orcs, trolls, and other sentient “monsters” in regard to Fantasy fiction, not the real-life internet troll.
Alas, I haven’t read those books.
I appreciate the recommendations always, and I’m glad to see that there are variations on orcs out there. However, as I said in the OP, I’m not sure any sort of orc is redeemable. The common characteristics of all orcs seems to be that they a) look “ugly” and “brutish” to human eyes, b) are darker-colored in some way, sometimes black but also gray or green, and c) end up as “the enemy” for whatever character the reader is engaging with (the protag of a book, the player character of a game). Adding poetry and occasional noble motives to this base does not solve the problem of orcs as fantasy Other. The stereotypes that are being hit here are “people of color are ugly and thuggish”, and “dark skin = bad”, and maybe “ugly thuggish dark people are easily manipulated/controlled or are naturally evil”. The only way to remove the problems from orcs is to remove these stereotypes.
Are there any beautiful orcs out there, for example? Still dark-skinned, frex, and lacking the exaggerated non-human characteristics so many orcs seem to have (e.g. elongated teeth or tusks), and whose human characteristics are seen as beautiful by other characters? I know there are some tales out there from the orc PoV, but do any of those construct them as, say, master manipulators rather than the minions of some other power? It does sound like the Discworld’s Mr Nutt (thanks, Leila) has at least one intelligent orc, but it also sounds like he’s very much the exception to what the rest of his kind are like. Where’s the super-advanced race of highly sophisticated orcs come to save humankind from random evil?
This is what I’m trying to say: if you’re hearing me toss out these ideas and thinking, “But it’s not an orc anymore if it’s beautiful or smart,” that’s the problem. If the only way to have orcs is to force them to fit a), b), and c) above, and if anything else is not an orc, then orcs are irredeemable. They cannot be extricated from the stereotypes that they evoke; they have no purpose other than to be Other, in an exaggerated and unceasing way. And as such, they exist to be feared and hated.
I don’t think there’s any way to fix that.
::SNORK:: Nice. :) I let that one through because it made me laugh. He’s never bought my books, and wants me to know that… he isn’t buying my books? Dude, way to make me feel the sense of loss.
And the flip side of –
orc – dark – ugly – stupid
is the –
elf – pale – beautiful – skilled/cultured
Reinforcing the ‘lighter skinned is better. Light skin is beautiful.’
Kind of a worry that (in so many books) the humans regard another SPECIES as more beautiful than their own.
LOL! I’m sure you’ll survive, somehow. :) And thanks– I usually try not to engage posts like that, but this time I just couldn’t resist.
Ummm, dredging up more orcy stuff…
D&D orcs were once kind of pig-like. I’m guessing they were kinda like Jabba’s guards from Star Wars? Maybe that’s what the tusks are about… anyways, one of the early TSR novels, Pool of Radiance, features an assassin who was, from memory, quarter orc. Looked almost human apart from a pig-like snout. That was her motivation, she was working to gain enough money or favours to get a powerful mage to give her a human nose.
An author by the name of Stan Nicholls has written a series with a team of orcs as the protagonists. It’s been a while since I read it, but the books had a few little twists on each of the standard trope races. I don’t remember how sympathetic the books actually were to the orcs in general, but they WERE enslaved to a mad sorceress, and trying to break free… Also, the books posited that the different fantasy races were each from separate dimensions, parallel versions of their world, where each race is dominant, and the collision of those dimensions ahas everything mixed up and the world is going to hell. So there was a world of just orcs that the leader was trying to get to. And the last thing I recall was something about how the leader and a couple of others in his band were some sort of throwback or mutation towards intelligence, etc. So…
The webcomic ‘Dominic Deegan: Oracle for Hire’ has orcs as greenskinned, well, nomads living on ‘the Plains of Maltak’, They’re basically green humans with tusks and non-human hair colors like pink and bright red. After some time (during which various human bigots refer to orcs as ‘piggarts’), the comic artist changed the art a little to give the ors a more piggy nose… Also, there’s five clans, each with a primary trait. One group are kinda hippy archers with a stoner leader, another uses magical tattoos to store spells, a third are warriors (I think), the fourth were religious zealots, and I think the fifth were… I dunno, orc royalty.
I have to admit, as much as I like the comic in general (there’s a lot of fun stuff and cool fantasy ideas in other storylines), there’s some really ugly stuff in the various orc story lines, some triggery things, but mostly they seem to serve as a means to show the depths of racism and corruption in the human kingdom. Oh, and they have a ‘Test of Taking’, basically trial by combat to see which male claims a disputed female…. yeah.
Some good, some bad. Nothing overwhelmingly positive, I’m afraid…
Which just makes me want to try doing something to help fix it…
Thanks for your thoughts on Orcs, I too always thought that they mainly serve as „baddies for our heroes to slay without feeling bad“ (and I think in that they are the same as „modern“, „western“ zombies, both are not really human (anymore, in the case of zombies), so just crush their skulls in). If I’m not mistaken the original zombies where half-dead(?) humans bewitched by an evil sorcerer so that they lost their own will and where forced to carry out his/her demands (= slaves?).
What I totally not get is what this guy wanted. He wanted you to write more of the same old fantasy trite so that he can read the old Tolkien-bullshit (with all the sexism and racism) but written in your style? WHY???
Well, I kinda get it, it’s like: „Oh, I love how you play the violin, can you play some Brahms, please.“ This so stupid.
“It does sound like the Discworld’s Mr Nutt (thanks, Leila) has at least one intelligent orc, but it also sounds like he’s very much the exception to what the rest of his kind are like.”
No. As far as I know, he is only an exception, because he is the sole survivor of his race. But unfortunately, I have not read that book, and this is the only Discworld book where there is an Orc, because Orcs barely exists in that world. We do not even hear anything about them in other Discworld novels.
However, so far what Pratchett did in Discworld besides playing with tropes large, is to humanize things which we fear. One of the best example is Death, who is one of the most likeable characters.
Pratchett is one of the biggest humanists in fantasy. Things are never meant to be easy and simple in Discworld, and many of his villains are those kind, who believe that they are or they should be.
Pratchett never glorifies war, and always likes to show the Not So Different side in the conflict between two factions. Indeed, Pratchett rarely uses war as part of a plot. Usually his novels have a smaller, but nevertheless deep and humane scale.
I really-really advise you to try Small Gods… not just because it is about religion and gods, but I think it is also one of his strongest Discworld novels. I also recommend his Granny Weatherwax novels, full of strong female characters and each of them passes the Bechdel tests early. Hogfather is also a good novel. And I love his short stories…
…one of them is The Troll-bridge, where an old Conan-like barbarian meets with a troll, and chats with him, how the world has changed since they were young, and it is heartwarming IMHO.
Because of the orcs’ vaguely Turkic-sounding names, I’ve long assumed Tolkien was trying to evoke the Ottoman Turkish nemesis. The Ottoman Turks reached the gates of Vienna before they were turned back, and long had a hold on Western European consciousness. They were a powerful “Other,” something like the USSR for the US during the Cold War.
Orcs in Skyrim rock as characters, and can look quite spiffy and cool. They are by no means ugly, not to my eyes anyway.
But mainstream fantasy LOR imitations bore me to death. What was so great about your trilogy was it was something NEW.
Disclaimer: I’m a huge fan of Tolkien, and Pratchett. I’ve read a ton of European-based fantasy, largely because when I was growing up, that’s about all there was (and gods, that makes me sound so much older than I feel!).
I stumbled across your Dreamblood books last year at the library, and adored them. They were fresh, took such an interesting approach to magic, and then mixed in issues of society, culture, and added in political intrigue… I was hooked. I really need to get your other works (as soon as I’m caught up on professional reading… *sigh*).
You write beautifully. I’m hoping for a third Dreamblood… but will be happy to read whatever you come up with, because it’s different. Because it has no orcs, much as I have also loved orc-books. Because I know it will make me think and see in a different way.
Thank you, for sharing your vision!
And yes, I’ve told other people: “you need to read this!”
I don’t feel like orcs are everywhere in fantasy. (Maybe that’s just the fantasy I read!) Your post did make me think of Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker series though, where there is a race of ‘orcs’ that threw their lot in with the supposed bad guys centuries ago, and were vilified for it. Physically, I always imagined them to look like Tolkien’s orcs; and I think that’s more or less how they were described.
Also, your mermaid = porpoises + magic observation? Love it!
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I have nothing to say about orcs that hasn’t already been said. But the original correspondent is all wrong: your books are clearly not _really_ epic fantasy because they’re far too short and the series ends! Everyone knows _real_ epic fantasy is composed of a never-ending series of doorstop books. (Said with tongue firmly in cheek, of course.)
Did you play the Legacy DLC for Dragon Age 2? Because that put another interesting twist on the Darkspawn. There’s a strong suggestion that the “Tevinter Magisters were punished for defying the Maker” storyline may not be as clear-cut as we thought. I wish I could be confident that will be expanded on in DA3, but given the way DA2 has played out, I’m not feeling the love.
This is way off topic, I know, but I had issues with portrayal of the Qunari and the artistic redesign of the elves to make them less human, and with the storyline in general. I would love to hear more of your thoughts on it.
Not sure I understand. I thought “Legacy” clearly confirmed that the Tevinter magisters are the ones who became the first darkspawn, by invading the Golden City at the behest of the Old Gods. What wasn’t clear-cut?
And I’m not sure what your issues were with the redesign of the elves — I’m glad they stopped looking like “humans with pointy ears.” They’re supposed to actually be a different species; I thought it was appropriate that they looked the part. (Although I hate what they did with Zevran; good grief, it looks like his face got run over by a truck.) I did have some issues with the Qunari not being fully fleshed-out, but that’s because… they weren’t fully fleshed-out. They couldn’t be, given the circumstances of the plot. We’ve only ever seen one category of them. But within that narrow range, we were shown a lot of variation, which I thought was handled well. We saw that the Arishok isn’t a fanatic; his actions were well-reasoned and actually something I could empathize with, to the point that I kind of wished “join the Qunari” had been a plot option. :P We saw dissenters like Maraas (sp?), who just wanted to be a mercenary and forget all this political shit; we saw the Viscount’s son (can’t recall his name), who both loved a Qunari and came to understand his views. I liked that the “Mark of the Assassin” DLC explored non-warrior Qunari, too; hopefully in game three we’ll meet more.
I know this is a late comment, but I just wanted to applaud furiously at the end of this article. It’s funny, actually, that I found this now – I recently started getting back into Tolkien, and love most of his stuff, but when I converse with people on Tumblr about it we often wind up using tags like ‘democratic Easterlings’ and ‘orcs are people too’ as we discuss what the cultures of the evil-forces-fodder races might be like. Honestly, I don’t ever plan to have creatures like orcs because I find them deeply sad – they’re just creatures without a chance, warped by black magic, doomed to death. How depressing is that?
Not an ORC, but a troll, and not EPIC fantasy, but urban fantasy; I would recommend you VALIANT by Holly Black. Ravus is not only well-developed, a mastermind of an underground faery drug ring (they need Never to stay alive in the metal-filled city of New York), but the character’s love-interest. I love that book so much.
This is a fascinating discussion, btw. I’ve also never really been a fan of what the original poster described, mostly because it’s rehashing old tropes. I like fantasy when it breaks the rules and does something unique and different. Just because those are the rules of the genre, doesn’t mean the genre needs a little bit of tweaking and updating and, for pete’s sake, originality.
I am a university student and have just about no time (until the end of April, anyway), but the BookSmugglers have been talking about your books for ages… I can’t wait to read them!!
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I do think Orcs make sense as a concept from one perspective, one Hector touched upon earlier but that I think should be made more general: they’re the barbarians, as seen by settled peoples throughout history. They’re the faceless horde of strangers who suddenly appear from terra incognita, speaking no languages you understand, motivated by no goals you know of, behaving in ways you have never encountered before, and who will destroy everything you hold dear. They’re what ancient peoples thought the Vikings and the Huns and the Turks and the Goths and the Mongols and the Teutons were.
21st century cultures have lost that fear. We may still hate and fear our neighbours but there won’t be any unknown peoples appearing over the horizon and even if they did we would least pay lip-service to the idea that they’re humans just like us. There isn’t so much that’s alien anymore.
I suspect that on some level at least Orcs were a way of introducing that fear of the other and of the unknown to fantasy novels again. (And then everybody copied them because, as I’ve just learned from this post, that’s how you write best-sellers.) Of course, I’m not trying to contradict anything in the discussion here. Because the way ancient peoples viewed their “barbaric” neighbours was all about dehumanising them, and using orcs instead of mongols is a way of letting people do that again without feeling guilty. Which, yeah. Even Tolkien got a bit uncomfortable with the whole notion of evil Orcs towards the end of his life. Plus, now that the novelty has worn off 60 years after Tolkien Orcs don’t really work as representatives of the scary unknown anymore anyway.
It’s interesting to note that aliens in science-fiction, which could easily serve the same purpose, only rarely do. I mean, there are “space orcs” here and there, but I have the impression they’re the exception rather than the rule. Though perhaps less so in videogames than in books, since games do often need something for the player to shoot at.
(Great blog by the way, with some great discussions. I hope it’s alright I’m responding to a slightly older post.)
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