Orcs are my problematic fave.
July 1, 2019 9:56 AM   Subscribe

Orcs, Britons, And The Martial Race Myth Part I - Part II :: We say Tolkien invented orcs as we know them today. More precisely, he synthesized their nature from various traditional characterizations—not of mythical beings, but of real-life humans. Some of those characterizations came from popular European conceptions of the greatest threats to Western civilization. Others came from pseudoscientific frameworks of racism, some of which Tolkien would have encountered in his academic training. But Tolkien would meet the most germane theory to his orcs in his military service with the British Army: the fallacy of the martial race. content warnings: racism, colonialism/imperialism, examples of racist images, cultural conflation, sexism, sexual violence
posted by anastasiav (78 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is clumsy cultural criticism, but his target is so big that he can't miss. Anyone who reads pulp at all knows that the various non-human species in fantasy and science fiction stories are stereotypes moved directly over from adventure, exploration, and war stories. Dwarves are Morlocks are working-class ironmasters. Elves are Eloi are aristocracy with estates. Dark elves are French and gay. Orcs are London proletariat. (How he gets Mongols out of orcs is not at all clear to me.) Martians are Chinese, and Venusians African. Fremen are Chechen and Avars. All of them are changed a little by their transposition to new stories, but their origins remain evident.

In the process of being transposed again into D&D, the stereotypes are further flattened and debased, till you get creatures that exist entirely to be first fumbled to death and then robbed by children.

However, one must remember Tolkien's own analysis, "On Fairy-Stories." Tolkein argues that we tell stories about elves and dwarves because we miss the near company and evaluative regard of wild animals as intelligent and competent in their realm as we are in ours, but fundamentally different. Getting humans confused with wolves, deer, and ravens because you miss wolves, deer, and ravens is as fundamentally wrong-headed and dangerous as ideological racism, but it is dangerous and wrong-headed in a different way and for different reasons.

That said, Hodes is basically right. Unflatten. Even if you imagine an intelligent nonhuman fictional species as fundamentally ignorant, vicious, and destructive as red state Trump voters, remember that each of them is a separate throw of the dice, not a statistical mean.
posted by ckridge at 10:49 AM on July 1, 2019 [9 favorites]


This is a fantastic essay -- a lot of these I've read about and thought about before, but he also goes into some new directions. I loved the suggestions at the end for how to grapple with these things when making and playing games.

The connection between Tolkien's Orcs and various stereotypes of Asians is pretty well established. He pulled from many sources, of course -- the colloquial language he uses is more English-classist than racist (yay?) but the visual representation, cultural signifiers etc. are pretty obvious.

I loved his aside in the second part about Warhammer 40Ks ... different ... approach.
posted by feckless at 11:18 AM on July 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


Would agree the best orcs are Space Orks, Who sidestep a lot of the baggage by basically being metalheads/bikers*.

This is quite a good way to do Klingons too.

* unknown if metalheads/bikers would agree this is sidestepping problems, which I guess the article touches on.
posted by Artw at 11:21 AM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


Some say clumsy, I say breezy. This isn't exactly hard-hitting, but it's a delightfully readable think-piece. Reminds me of stuff The Believer might publish. Thanks!
posted by es_de_bah at 11:35 AM on July 1, 2019


One of the things that bothered me most about the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie (haven't seen the second) was that within the film's fiction all the Earthlings were white people. The casting for the movie was diverse but all the nonwhite cast were relegated to playing aliens with various makeup hues or prosthetics.
posted by ardgedee at 11:39 AM on July 1, 2019 [13 favorites]


I know Junot Diaz is terrible, but one of the lines that still sticks in my heart from The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is

“He read The Lord of the Rings for what I’m estimating the millionth time, one of his greatest loves and comforts since he’d first discovered it, back when he was nine and lost and lonely and his favorite librarian had said, Here try this, and with one suggestion changed his life. Got through almost the whole trilogy, but then the line “and out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” and he had to stop, his head and his heart hurting too much.”

posted by ChuraChura at 11:47 AM on July 1, 2019 [18 favorites]


Great article! Fantastic FPP!

D&D is still in a transitional period, and has always reflected the culture it's grown out of. It's made strong progress in gender expression. But the author here is very good at showing how far there is to go in terms of race. I really appreciate the willingness to engage with a problematic fave and give concrete examples on how to improve.

Modern D&D seems to be moving away from sentient beings being inherently evil or inherently good. I think there's a lot more examples of "that goblin guard you just killed had a family!" and penalizing players who kill "monster" children. Making orcs, bugbears, even yuan-ti playable characters possible, you have to conclude that they have freedom of choice to be good if you want to play them that way. Of course, they can still come from societies that are extremely toxic.

When I DM, I tend to make all leaders corrupt and all societies problematic. I give every individual agency--even demons and devils generally are just doing a job. My vision of the Drow is based on how I imagine the rest of the world sees the USA. But this article gave me lots of ideas on how to do better. I'm just starting a Spelljammer campaign, so I'm going to have lots of new opportunities to re-characterize lots of folk. And I'm definitely going to make the Imperial Elven Armada a bunch of colonial assholes. But I'll make the outer-space Drow generally good people. And I love the idea of multicultural Asian-inspired Orcish & Goblin cultures.

Fifth edition gets a lot right, game-wise, but I think the big lift for a future sixth edition will be thinking out how to combine a morally complex world with storytelling opportunities that allow for good-versus-evil without falling into stereotypes and secondhand dehumanization. WotC should hire this guy.
posted by rikschell at 12:13 PM on July 1, 2019 [13 favorites]


I thought this was a great essay, that reflected a lot of my own anxieties towards fantastic racism in sci-fi/fantasy. Of course, I posted it as r/pathfinder, where it's getting downvoted into oblivion.

I'd be interested in seeing Hodes' take on the Shadowrun setting, as moreso than other games, Shadowrun uses fantasy as a metaphor for actual race relations.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 12:22 PM on July 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


ChuraChura, I was just coming here to quote that because that was my exactly my experience with LOTR and it made me cry when I read it. I obsessively re-read LOTR from when I was 10 to around 13 and now I can't read them anymore.

(For some reason, I haven't dropped the other problematic faves of my youth--it could be that Middle-earth felt like an imaginative home while I always knew there was no place for me in an English country house, and I wouldn't want to be in one of the murdery ones anyway.)
posted by betweenthebars at 12:25 PM on July 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


Orcs are London proletariat. (How he gets Mongols out of orcs is not at all clear to me.)

How do you get London proletariat? I know that in the films orcs have the necessary Cockney accent but that is not the case in the books.
posted by vacapinta at 12:43 PM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


I'd be interested in seeing Hodes' take on the Shadowrun setting, as moreso than other games, Shadowrun uses fantasy as a metaphor for actual race relations.

Holy shit yes. I would really love to read some social justice takes on the Shadowrun setting, particularly from minorities, particularly from Native Americans. On the one hand, I honestly believe that being exposed to the Shadowrun as a nine or ten-year-old living in southern Idaho was a formative experience that was somewhere between important and essential to my developing the strongly egalitarian views I hold and do my best to live today. It was self-evident to little kid me that the American government in the Shadowrun timeline was behaving deplorably in their treatment of Native Americans, and that the Humanis clubs and other human supremacists who wanted to persecute metahumans and Awakened people were monsters, and I assume my responses were more or less intentional on the part of the writers.

On the other hand, according to that exact same Shadowrun 2E core rulebook that I just pulled off the shelf, Shadowrun was created by Jordan Weisman, Bob Charrette, Paul Hume, Tom Dowd, L. Ross Babcock III, Sam Lewis, and Dave Wylie, which sure sounds like as white a list of white guys as any to ever designed a fictional setting. I have the 1E Native American Nations books, which were written by Nigel D. Findley and developed by Tom Dowd. I mean, woof. And FASA had a trademark on the phrase "Native American Nations," according to those books, which is fucking insane. So, I dunno. I don't encounter a lot of people talking about Shadowrun online anymore ever since I tapped out of following what is currently being released because the current license holders were really just butchering the whole setting for a while. I would love some news perspectives if anyone knows of any, because I love the setting, but I'm as white as Nigel was and I just don't know.
posted by Caduceus at 12:57 PM on July 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


They definitely weren’t accidental

Or, it would seem, occidental.
posted by acb at 1:12 PM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


There are plenty of valid criticisms to be made about Tolkien and race. But anyone who has read his correspondences and various writings knows that you can't take any one piece of his scribblings and make a super-broad conclusion. People still debate where orcs came from - Tolkien was not terribly consistent. The point I'm making is that I think he's completely right to say that the orc is based on, among other things, certain foul Asian stereotypes, it's quite another to say that the orc is almost entirely modeled on such.

As far as I can tell, he's taking this from one mention from one of Tolkien's letters, but Tolkien's letters are famously all over the place and contradicting each other, changing his mind, etc.

The discussion of racism in D&D and role-playing is actually a much bigger conversation since there are many more players over a longer period of time. Despite the seeming similarity, it may be mostly distinct from questions of racism in Tolkien. Tolkien's influence on D&D is a little more complicated than most people know. For one thing, Gygax was not a big fan of LotR. In fact, the fantasy that inspired D&D is mostly older pulp materials, the so-called "Appendix N".

You will note that LotR is listed in Appendix N (as "the ring trilogy"), as it should. After all, Tolkien's tropes are all over the place. But Gygax included the professor's works purely due to its popularity with many of his players, specifically co-creator Dave Arneson. For instance, here's an excerpt of an online interview with him from 2002:

Question:

In Appendix N (inspirational reading) of the 1e DMG, you write:

"The most immediate influences upon AD&D were probably de Camp & Pratt, REH [Howard], Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, HPL [Lovecraft], and A. Merritt."

In listing the primary authors that influenced the AD&D game, you left out J.R.R. Tolkien (you put him in a much larger list of sources of fantasy but did not include him among the 'most immediate influences'). As many people (erroneously) consider D&D to be a rather close copy of Tolkien's world, leaving out Tolkien seems conspicuous.

Is there any particular reason you didn't single out Tolkien as one of the major influences on AD&D?


Gary's answer:

I omitted JRRT's work as a primary one because it didn't inspire me in regards to gaming, to create the material in A/D&D that made it what it is at its core. While I enjoyed THE HOBBIT, the trilogy was not an exciting read for me.

The listed authors and works were what moved me to want to design a game that allowed participants to have exciting fantasy adventures. The "influences" from JRRT's work that I included in the game were mainly there to interest others in playing it, not what caused me to want to create it


So Tolkien did have a large influence on D&D, but it's important to keep in mind that a lot of it was basically mindlessly imported rather than slavishly adapted. And if you want to talk about racism in D&D, look to its real roots in the works of people like Lovecraft (bad) and Howard (not as bad, but not good).

The question of killing orc babies has been churning through RPG circles for at least six years now. I don't think there's a good cut and dried answer to that dilemma, but that's me. What's always thrown me off a bit more is the weird use of "race" as nomenclature and its peculiar implications. For instance, there are half-elves, but I've never heard of a half-halfling (quarterling?), much less a half-halfling/half-elf. Are these races or species? At least some of them can interbreed (no idea about the others), so it sounds like they are all the same species. Even though elves live for centuries?

As for the playability of orcs, sometimes I think that makes them more problematic. It's easier if they are just non-human monsters; that makes them seem less comparable to a human race to me. For the longest time, it was strongly implied that most half-orcs were the product of rape. How delightful!

See, there's a reason I've always avoided playing with half-orcs - as a matter of fact, I've never been a big fan of orcs, anyway. Same with halflings. Hmm, maybe it is all Tolkien's fault!
posted by Edgewise at 1:29 PM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


I know that in the films orcs have the necessary Cockney accent but that is not the case in the books.

If you go back and read the dialogue from the books, it's there. It shows up most clearly when Merry and Pippin are being taken to Isengard, and later when Sam and Frodo are in the tower and the orcs are fighting each other. That he grafted that language onto an invented race that he also gave physical and cultural stereotypes based on English views of Asian people is ... well, it's very Tolkien.
posted by feckless at 1:38 PM on July 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


I've sometimes done my own trope subversion with Orcs, in that they seem to be from a mis-spelling of Turks (such as how Hashishim became Assassin), and as such:

The Orcs exist in great numbers because they have the hammam, and as such have better hygiene than other fantasy races in the setting. They are fond of poetry and fine clothing. Orcs are militarily dominant because of their combination of horse archers and arquebuses.... it's quite a subversion (and yet, a reversion) to have the Orcish cities based on Ankara and Istanbul, and have street urchins begging for a bit of Orcish Delight...

Or my favorite RPG intro hook:

"The three humble Orc farmers approach you in the Tavern. 'Please, kind sirs, our small forest village is in need of protection. For many decades we've lived in peace and harmony with the land, but recently, the Elvish factories up the river has been polluting and poisoning our waters. Their armies raid our land, taking our wealth and our women folk. We do not have much to offer you in pay, but we have pooled all of our wealth to hire some adventurers to protect our village. Will you help us?" the anxious Orc elder asks, his hat in his hand....."
posted by LeRoienJaune at 1:38 PM on July 1, 2019 [18 favorites]


In my last session, my warlock was sssooooo close to convincing the rest of the party that rather than slaying monsters in the dungeon, we should be looking to liberate them, freeing them from the shackles of servitude that kept them locked away for some mad mage's amusement. We did manage to set one free - a vampire who is probably off murdering a nearby village, so, uh, whoops.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:44 PM on July 1, 2019 [7 favorites]


Yeah, the undead don't have souls so you can mostly kill them with impunity. But vampires? Seriously what is up with them? Even Buffy was very confusing about their whole soul situation (not to mention trafficking in terrible Roma tropes).
posted by rikschell at 1:50 PM on July 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


How do you get London proletariat? I know that in the films orcs have the necessary Cockney accent but that is not the case in the books.

Good question. Partly it is because everything else in the trilogy is so utterly English. Hobbits are English country folk right out of Thomas Hardy, dwarves owe a lot more to 19th-century novelistic portrayals of northern English mill owners than to anything Norse, elves are what English aristocrats pretended to be, and so on. Tolkien was trying to create an English myth. It would be odd to find anything foreign in it.

Orcs come from an enormous pile of masonry to the southeast, one surrounded by smoke, cinders, and soot, and near a large river. That sounds like London to me. Tolkien was Catholic, and Catholic doctrine is definite that evil can have no creative power, but only corrupt what was once good. It follows that orcs must be degenerate forms of something once good. Contemporary descriptions of London criminals were much given to describing their characteristic degenerate physiognomy.

Starting sometime in the 19th century, the English middle and upper classes completely lost track of what was going on in the slums. They just never went there. Even as late as Worth's memoir Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s, she mentions that even police never went into the East End alone, though midwives could. Correspondingly, slum dwellers never left. They were very near and yet wholly separate.

London Cockneys, eked out by Scots, Irish, and Indians, made up a large part of England's despised, necessary colonial infantry. It was necessary to believe both that they were scarcely human and that at least some of them could fight. You can see how this could lead to a certain dramatic tension that could easily be exploited by fantastic fiction.

For these reasons, as well as the lack of horses and bows, I think the London proletariat a more likely basis than Mongols for orcs. This is not to say that they have not since been interpreted as evil Asians or evil black people by D&D players. Stories permit multiple interpretation.
posted by ckridge at 2:08 PM on July 1, 2019 [12 favorites]


> So Tolkien did have a large influence on D&D, but it's important to keep in mind that a lot of it was basically mindlessly imported rather than slavishly adapted.

I kind of wonder how much of that might be backtracking or ass covering. In the 80s TSR was in a weird relationship with the Tolkien estate which thought that some details of the rulebooks were appropriated a little too freely from JRRT, but at the same time TSR was rumored to be actually interested in licensing a Middle Earth-related D&D spinoff. (The Tolkien estate, iirc, eventually licensed rights to some other game company.)
posted by ardgedee at 2:13 PM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


I'm pleased to see D&D-likes starting to adopt alternative terms to "Race" for your elves and your dwarves and such, like "Ancestry" or "Heritage." I'm not sure they're perfect, but they're better. I wish 5e had done so.
posted by Caduceus at 2:38 PM on July 1, 2019


dwarves owe a lot more to 19th-century novelistic portrayals of northern English mill owners than to anything Norse

Weren't Tolkien's dwarves also based on stereotypes of Jews?
posted by acb at 2:47 PM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


I kind of wonder how much of that might be backtracking or ass covering. In the 80s TSR was in a weird relationship with the Tolkien estate which thought that some details of the rulebooks were appropriated a little too freely from JRRT, but at the same time TSR was rumored to be actually interested in licensing a Middle Earth-related D&D spinoff.

TSR certainly saw the dollar signs in Tolkien's work; that's almost the reason Gygax gives for including his tropes. But a little investigation shows that the Gary was definitely a devotee of earlier pulp fantasy and even guys like Lord Dunsany, and not personally a fan of LotR.

Of course, despite his attempts to make it seem otherwise, there are more hands than EGG's in the creation of the "D&D genre," as I put it. For instance, Hickman was certainly influenced by the epic scope of the ring books to produce his own horribly watered-down storyline about dragons and lances.

The important takeaway is that D&D really has a lot of influences beyond Tolkien, and arguably, Tolkien was not the primary influence. In particular, I think Leiber and Vance may be more important. Trust this, though: if you read enough Appendix N books, the truth of this becomes quickly obvious.
posted by Edgewise at 2:51 PM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


"In the 80s TSR was in a weird relationship with the Tolkien estate which thought that some details of the rulebooks were appropriated a little too freely from JRRT"

From a Dragon cartoon of the time:
"Could someone answer the phone? It's circular-metal-banding."
"Ah, I see the Tolkien estate has been in touch."
posted by Mogur at 3:02 PM on July 1, 2019 [16 favorites]


I thought the lawsuit played a role in sweeping LotR under the Appendix N rug - downplay the influence so treants and halflings don't have to further become branchlords and weegobbets.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:02 PM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


Weren't Tolkien's dwarves also based on stereotypes of Jews?

The avarice would correspond to English anti-Semitism, but not the smithery. I can't think of a single instance in English high or low fiction in which a Jew is shown making things. They are always money-lenders or shop-keepers. There must be exceptions, but I can't call them to mind.
posted by ckridge at 3:04 PM on July 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


D&D-ish fantasy is the roleplaying genre that is least my bag, but playing orcs punching Nazis as the conclusion suggests? Now that sounds like a game.
posted by Zed at 3:06 PM on July 1, 2019


we could brainstorm every racist stereotype we can think of and map them all to the fantasy peoples they best fit, but let's don't actually do that
posted by prize bull octorok at 3:09 PM on July 1, 2019 [16 favorites]


jeweled accumulation posted this lovely story a while back:
My character is a half-orc monk, who, when I noticed in the players' handbook that orcish doesn't have a written form, has made it their life's work to develop a written language so the orcs might write their own history instead of their enemies doing so. So far they've set up a scholarship fund for orphan half-orcs like themselves.
posted by Zed at 3:10 PM on July 1, 2019 [13 favorites]


Of course, despite his attempts to make it seem otherwise, there are more hands than EGG's in the creation of the "D&D genre," as I put it. For instance, Hickman was certainly influenced by the epic scope of the ring books to produce his own horribly watered-down storyline about dragons and lances.

Hey, say what you will about the quality of the writing, Margaret Weis wrote those books. That's why she's first in all the author tags for the novels. Tracy and his wife Laura was the genesis of the setting and helped create the setting and worked up the plot, because he was the primary writer of the adventure modules. The novels and the adventure modules were plotted and written in tandem, but Margaret Weis did the bulk of the actual prose writing and continued to do so on most of the novels they wrote together throughout their careers, at least up through the summer of 2006 when I learned this at a novel reading of the Dragons of the Dwarven Depths in Denver.

And for that matter say what you will about story-based D&D modules, of which Dragonlance were some of the first and which I think are largely inferior to location-based ones as they fall apart pretty quickly if the players don't stay on the rails, so I don't think Dragonlance was necessarily a good thing for gaming as a whole. But try not to reflexively assign all credit and censor to the dude in partnership between a man and a women, particularly when you're doing so erroneously.
posted by Caduceus at 3:11 PM on July 1, 2019 [5 favorites]


One of the best mashups of LOTR and D&D is DM of the Rings, which retells LOTR as a D&D campaign. The DM can't shut up about his backstory, and the characters complain endlessly about never getting good loot and only getting to fight orcs.

Anyway, Tolkien was masterful in many ways, but the orcs are terrible worldbuilding. Mendez's reminder is good: that the Mongols were not just badass warriors but cultural sophisticates. The orcs don't have any good points, any side hobbies, any personality beyond "thug". They don't even get pensions or a plot of land after serving as Sauron's foot soldiers. It's a level of dehumanization that would have embarrassed Howard or Burroughs.

I like Mendez's ideas on playing orcs. I'd note that D&D has to catch up to video games in this respect— orcs have always been a playable species, and citizens of the empire, in the Elder Scrolls series.

(BTW I write "Mendez" because he does, here.)
posted by zompist at 3:15 PM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


Obligatory mention of The Last Ringbearer, a retelling of the entire LotR trilogy from the Orcs' perspective as a peaceful and technologically advanced civilisation threatened by imperialist neighbours, which reframes Tolkien's version of the story as "history written by the victors".

Wikipedia article.

(Free) download of the English translation in pdf, epub, or mobi.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 3:36 PM on July 1, 2019 [11 favorites]


There's a letter where Tolkien cites Hebrew as a partial inspiration for the Dwarven language (which doesn't even exist apart from a few very short phrases), but that's about as far as the "Dwarves are Jews" thing goes.

There's also a letter where Tolkien responds to the prospective publishers of a German translation of The Hobbit asking whether he's Aryan by essentially telling them to fuck off and that the Aryans were Iranian by the way, he regrets that he can't claim any Jewish ancestry, and the Nazis have made him ashamed of his German surname.

(This Tolkien coexists with the one who faced his heroes of against a horde of swarthy half-men, Hunnic/Mongol Easterners, and dark Southerners, but I see no reason to invent things to accuse him of.)
posted by tobascodagama at 3:38 PM on July 1, 2019 [13 favorites]


There's a lot of racial stereotyping in Tolkien-- indeed, an unhealthy preoccupation with "blood" and race in general-- and I believe he was racist in his physical description of Orcs. Character-wise, though, Tolkien's Orcs all share one trait: they enjoy war.

Tolkien could have made the Orcs' diction "foreign." He could have had his Orcs speak the kind of pseudo-pidgin used by Ghân-buri-Ghân. But instead, they sound British. They are us (or at least, what Tolkien thought of as "us"). Orcs are what we become if we let war grind our humanity out of us.

Of the few Orcs whose conversation we overhear via Sam and Frodo, Shagrat is a pretty standard sergeant-type commanding the guard at Cirith Ungol; Gorbag is an agent reporting to Minas Morgul who dislikes his superiors and finds the Ringwraiths creepy; later we meet the scout/tracker Snàga, who-- uniquely among Orcs-- kills his commander, deserts and (apparently) survives.

All of these Orcs speak in recognisable British-soldier diction, though Snàga's speech is more peasant/lower-class than his commander's or either of the watchtower orcs. All of them have opinions about the war, about Shelob, Gollum, the Ringwraiths and their superiors. None of them seem to be patriots, idealists or zealots. But all of them view brutality with a soldier's apathy, or with enjoyment; they all describe fighting and torture semi-ironically as "fun."

The only zealot we meet is the unnamed slave-driver who whips Frodo and Sam up the path to Mount Doom (still mistaking them for Orcs who've deserted from their division). He's basically a British NCO:
"Come on, you slugs!" he cried. "This is no time for slouching." He took a step towards them, and even in the gloom he recognised the devices on their shields. "Deserting, eh?" he snarled. "Or thinking of it? All your folk should have been inside Udûn before yesterday evening. You know that. Up you get and fall in, or I'll have your numbers and report you."
That last is absolutely something a bad staff officer would say. I wouldn't be surprised if it were taken verbatim from someone under whom Tolkien trained or served. Then comes the bit everyone remembers:
"There now!" he laughed, flicking at their legs. "Where there's a whip there's a will, my slugs. Hold up! I'd give you a nice freshener now, only you'll get as much lash as your skins will carry when you come in late to your camp. Do you good. Don't you know we're at war?"
And there Tolkien ends that section of story, letting that phrase resonate. "Don't you know we're at war?" was a phrase in common use during WWI to bully people into compliance and conformity. It was shouted at shellshocked soldiers; recruits who showed insufficient fighting spirit; young men who hadn't joined up; women who looked too happy in the street. Tolkien, who was invalided out, knew exactly what he was doing putting those words into the mouths of Orcs.
posted by Pallas Athena at 4:00 PM on July 1, 2019 [35 favorites]


Back when I DMed, I used GURPS so that I could build everything myself. I had noticed that elves, dwarves, hobs, and so on are amalgamations of much larger and more disparate sets of creatures under class headings, first by folklorists and then by fantasy writers interested in building coherent fictional worlds. The things in the original folk tales were hardly members of species at all. There was no particular reason to believe that the creature heard weeping under a rock about a broken toy left in the road, and who gave John good luck ever after when he fixed it, was at all the sort of thing as members of the invisible troop who would pinch you as they passed you gossiping and quarreling. The creatures seemed to be features of particular landscapes, not of species ranging across several landscapes. The troll that large boulder atop the hill turns into when the sun goes down is not really at all like the troll the standing stone on the down turns into.

What I did instead was draw a map, imagine a landscape, and populate the landscape with things that seemed to me to grow out of it. I was using a version of 14th-century England, so it was still derivative and flattened, but I was forced to actually think about my fen men, trolls, Picts, demons, and worms.

It seems to me that using creatures taken from folklorists' and authors' systems is taking something already partially flattened and empty, and flattening and emptying it further. This leads to flattened, dehumanized characters reduced to little more than plot functions. This may be psychologically harmful. It is unquestionably bad story-telling.
posted by ckridge at 4:01 PM on July 1, 2019 [5 favorites]


So Tolkien's Orcs were, on one level, ordinary English Tommies brutalised and dehumanised by a reality of perpetual war, turned into something less than they once had been; though this is still nailed home by them being depicted as barbarous Oriental grotesques. The most charitable thing one can say about that was that, while Tolkien may not have been a racialist, his understanding was that such a characterisation was necessary for unambiguously conveying the bestial barbarism of his monster-men to the audience of the day.
posted by acb at 4:10 PM on July 1, 2019 [12 favorites]


Someone got in the face of Matt Mercer of Critical Role about his use of Orcs as the defacto brutal-bad-guys when a number of other races seem to be able to get out of it. He replied (original tweet unavailable and account apparently deleted):
The orcs in this setting are designed to have spawned from the corrupting blood of a dark god of brutality. Their nature is violence.

They represent a largely agreed-upon source of danger and strife that most fantasy RPG world require to maintain wild dangers outside (cont)

As years pass, some are managing to buck the curse their ancestral creation sparked, and might show eventual redemption. (Cont)

They are not social commentary. They are a loose source for conflict in your world that you can shape and utilize however you wish. (Cont)

Many elements of a game world have morally grey areas, orc, human, or otherwise. It's up to you to employ those narratives. (Cont)

However, I do take offense that you would assume or compare these fantasy creatures as an analogy for minorities and pin that on me.
And as a lot of people in D&D point out, yeah, we can work with it. Right now in 5th ed, they're moving to have the Gnolls be the Innately Horrific Race (literally spawned when a demon-lord shows up and kills things with his hordes of hyenas, some of whom then mutate into the gnolls when enough death and gorging of intelligent creatures happens. Even in the Forgotten Realms books, which had literal orc hordes attacking, there's an orc nation that has trade and treaties. (The creator of the Realms, Ed Greenwood, is not without flaws, but at the same time also points out that at this point he's not The Man Who Defines The World anymore and pushes people to Do Their Own Thing.)

Hell, there's the Eberron world, where while there are horrible and innately evil things out there, they're supernatural and nightmarish (in some cases literally so) whereas the orcs, thousands of years ago, helped to contain them. There's 'monster'-run nations, and you can run them as serious politics if you want to. (Honestly, Eberron is the best thing to happen to D&D in years and I'm looking forwards to next year's proper book about it).
posted by mephron at 5:15 PM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


Piltdown Man was 'discovered' in 1912 and not exposed as a fraud until 1953, and was a source of often very intense discussion in England over that entire period of time.

Tolkien wrote LOTR during the years from 1937 to 1947 or 1949, I forget which, and I think it's more likely that the Orcs were an allusion to pre human hominids than existing human races. I know Tolkien's good friend (and fellow Inkling) CS Lewis was very interested in Darwin and Piltdown Man, and claimed that Darwinian "Descent of Man" was not incompatible with Christian theology, including and especially the Garden of Eden, and there's a good case to be made that the loss of Eden is the overarching Christian myth of LOTR.
posted by jamjam at 5:24 PM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


sadly, that half-orc was killed by a dragon before they got to finish much of anything
posted by jeweled accumulation at 6:36 PM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


Hey, say what you will about the quality of the writing, Margaret Weis wrote those books.

Yeesh, you got me wrong.

First of all, I'm not talking about the books at all; I'm talking about the modules. On that score, we're both wrong, but you're more wrong. Weis didn't write any of those. Hickman wrote several of them but not all or even most; Doug Niles probably holds that "distinction." Check it out.

Second of all, as a matter of personal taste, I don't consider "primary author of Dragonlance books or novels" to be something to brag about. But the books are merely derivative fantasy novels. Nothing tragic about that. The modules, on the other hand, are a classic example of abysmal design. As you say, they are so ridiculously on rails that the whole damn thing breaks if your players do something unpredictable i.e. player-like. Their awfulness is legendary.

So you can be glad your precious Weis' hands aren't on that mess. Frankly, I think she's got better credits to her name than the Dragonlance novels. The Rose of the Prophet series had some genuinely creative and entertaining bits, and it was surprising in the late 80's to encounter what I recall as a very sympathetic gay protagonist in a fantasy novel. It's been a long time so it might hold up poorly, but I remember being struck by it in high school.

tl;dr She's not high on my list but she's written some OK stuff and she hasn't written some of the worst role-playing adventures ever published, so I have no complaints. And I ain't hiding her contributions or anything.
posted by Edgewise at 7:34 PM on July 1, 2019


Thanks for all the clarifications. If only you'd been clear the first time, they might not have been necessary.

So you can be glad your precious Weis' hands aren't on that mess.

That's a really weird assumption about my relationship with Weis or a weird attempt to put words in my text box, I'm not sure. I've met many people who read those books who weren't even aware they were based on modules in the first place, and nothing about your comment made it clear you meant the modules and not the much better-known novels, and you appeared to be editing Margaret Weis out responsibility for writing said books. I just wanted to correct that. Sorry for the misunderstanding.
posted by Caduceus at 7:57 PM on July 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


This feels very timely.

My newbie cleric of Desna just had a heart to heart with a more experienced priestess about how she just wanted the world to be fair and wanted to solve things with diplomacy instead of violence.

The 5E home brew campaign I’m working on will allow players to be of mixed racial heritage using any race - you want to be a dwarf/dragonborn or a halfling/tiefling or an aaracocra/fire genasi, go for it!

Critical Role’s current campaign is very much an examination of what does good and evil mean. I can’t go farther into it without spoilers, but if you’re watching, we’ve started discussing it in FanFare.
posted by booksherpa at 8:09 PM on July 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


sadly, that half-orc was killed by a dragon before they got to finish much of anything
*sniff*. Half-orc monk writing system creator, literacy activist, humanitarian and orcitarian, I salute you!
posted by Zed at 8:18 PM on July 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


With regard to the Matt Mercer tweets...

Fantasy is a genre of myth and allusion, of emotional resonance, of archetypes: the good king, the plucky adventurer, and yes, unfortunately of stereotypes.

The reason you use "orcs" in a setting is because you want to evoke some emotional resonance - the idea of a ruthless barbarian horde, of the senseless violence of conquerors. And those ideas, in turn, have emotional power because they draw upon allusions to real life - mongol hordes, vikings raiders, humans with their humanity ground out of them by war: all the different things discussed in the posted article and here.

That is the nature of the story telling tool. Its power comes with baggage. If you don't want that baggage, you can just make up your own soulless, violent spawn of a brutal god's corruption and make up a new silly name for them like Kir-lanan or something and tell your story unencumbered. Thinking you can completely ignore what orcs have become in the popular imagination just by saying "well actually, my orcs are different" is an amateur hack move that shows you do not know how to use the story telling tools you have been given. And it is on you.

Of course as DM's we are all, ultimately, amateur hacks, but the important part is to keep learning, to take note when a story telling tool or a trope isn't doing quite what you wanted it to do, and take that into account for next time. And it's definitely not easy to get right.
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:13 PM on July 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


For instance, there are half-elves, but I've never heard of a half-halfling (quarterling?), much less a half-halfling/half-elf.

Despite Gygaxian protestations, the answer is almost certainly that there are half-elves in Tolkien.
posted by Slothrup at 10:31 PM on July 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


Wikipedia: half-elven
...Dior, heir of the Sindarin kingdom of Doriath and of the Silmaril, was thus one-quarter Elvish by blood and one-quarter Maian (thus half-immortal), and half-human (thus half-mortal).
And his descent Elrond who was
one sixteenth Maiar, nine sixteenths elven (five thirty-seconds Vanyarin, three thirty-seconds Noldorin, five sixteenths Sindarin) and three eighths human (one quarter of the House of Bëor, one sixteenth of the House of Haleth, and one sixteenth of the House of Hador)
Stephen Colbert would be ashamed of me since I had no idea Elrond wasn't fully elven until I read that just now.
posted by XMLicious at 10:57 PM on July 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Orcs are London proletariat

Britain has more than one city. Tolkien lived in the midlands, a region that's in the middle of England (not the middle of the UK). He grew up in rural areas but the large city that dominates the area is Birmingham. He went to school in Birmingham and would have visited the city many times. Birmingham was a sprawling, high density city that had a lot of heavy and light industry - foundries, factories, workshops. It was smoke-blackened (people and buildings) and the working class there were very different to the rural population of the villages Tolkien grew up in, and the university city he made his home as an adult.

Birmingham was a massive influence on Mordor and the orcs - Tolkien has said this himself. The fact that Birmingham is not mentioned in the articles at all makes me think the author has come up with his theory first and then written to justify it, rather than actually researching the topic.

The avarice would correspond to English anti-Semitism, but not the smithery. I can't think of a single instance in English high or low fiction in which a Jew is shown making things. They are always money-lenders or shop-keepers. There must be exceptions, but I can't call them to mind.

Birmingham has an area in the city centre called The Jewellery quarter that wasn't entirely Jewish but had many families of Jewish craftsmen originating from Russia and Eastern Europe. Tolkien based his dwarvish language on Hebrew. While anti-semitic tropes are present, the Dwarves as smiths, exiled from their homeland and obsessed with gold was influenced by actual people, not anti-semitism directly.

British imperial racism undoubtedly had an influence on Tolkien's work - it pervaded British life, and even many organisations and thinkers seen as progressive would be shockingly racist by today's standards. The hordes from the East destroying civilisation is absolutely based on the invasions of Europe from the East, the fall of Rome.

But I don't think Tolkien wrote from a consciously racist standpoint. He despised the Nazis for a start, in a period where many British people supported Hitler (not just the rabble of Mosley supports - many politicians and intellectuals, even those viewed as liberals, wanted Hitler to do well)

The orcs and Mordor represent Britain, and British people, at least much as they reflect British fears of foreigners - the wrong sort of Britain and British people (for Tolkien).

There's a small but significant scene in The Lord Of The Rings where Frodo and Sam watch men from southern countries (and their elephants) marching towards battles and their deaths because of allegiances to Sauron, and they pity them. Tolkien witnessed Indian and African soldiers forced to travel to Europe and die in the cold mud of World War I, fighting as disposable soldiers for the British Empire. Naive middle-class Merry and Pippin are dragged along by a horde of marching orcs, echoing Tolkien's experiences as a junior officer of millworker-soldiers. Mordor is a lot closer to Tolkien's home than Asia.
posted by BinaryApe at 11:35 PM on July 1, 2019 [20 favorites]


The Fabian Society, now seen as comically mild and non-radical for socialists, started off very pro-empire and justified universal welfare and healthcare as a way to turn the rather unhealthy, malnourished British working class into, well, basically imperial stormtroopers, so that they could conquer the non-European world and bring British civilisation to everyone. Bred for war.
posted by BinaryApe at 11:51 PM on July 1, 2019 [3 favorites]


One last comment - I grew up in a village 20-ish miles from the edges of Birmingham during the 1970s, and the comments from the local population about "hordes of Brummies descending on us" "we'll just be swallowed up by the city" "Yobs from Birmingham" "gangs of burglars are coming down from Birmingham", etc were happening when a large proportion of the people in the area were already originally from Birmingham and we weren't even a rural idyll - it was coal mining village. (My dad was an orc)
posted by BinaryApe at 12:04 AM on July 2, 2019 [8 favorites]


Another last comment - Birmingham is actually surprisingly nice now, don't be put off by Tolkien's dislike of it. Visit the Back To Backs to see how the factory workers and jewellers lived when it wasn't as nice.
posted by BinaryApe at 12:20 AM on July 2, 2019 [2 favorites]


Zalzidrax, it seems like you’re unwilling to engage in the author’s premise here. Because it’s hard not to interpret you as saying that you like your stories to be racist because it’s traditional for stories to be racist.

You might want to examine your concept of “ruthless barbarian hordes” because stories where your players meet them and find their own prejudices are wrong are going to be better stories than where your players just roll in and kill them.

Dehumanization is a thing that happens in real life. I think it’s less important to figure out Tolkien and Gygax’s exact intentions than to admit that they both engaged in dehumanization by creating a kind of people who are recognizable as people but who are classified as “monsters.” We can and should do better than that. We can still fight proper monsters. We can even have sympathy for monsters. But if they are recognizable as people with agency to choose their actions, we have to stop treating them as monsters and calling them such. Yes, even in a game. Otherwise you’re going to wake up one day, look in the mirror and realize you’ve been the BBEG all along.
posted by rikschell at 4:25 AM on July 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


Another last comment - Birmingham is actually surprisingly nice now, don't be put off by Tolkien's dislike of it. Visit the Back To Backs to see how the factory workers and jewellers lived when it wasn't as nice.

Proud Mordorian here, I'm currently in an office very close to Birmingham's Perrott's Folly, popularly supposed to be the inspiration for one of the Two Towers. Tolkien grew up near Sarehole Mill, an idyllic bit of Shire like rural Brum which would have had the smoke and fire of one of the largest industrial centres in the world on the horizon.
posted by brilliantmistake at 4:45 AM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


If dehumanisation is a problem with fictional tropes, where is the boundary? Is, for example, the arcade game Space Invaders problematic, because it posits a wave of inhuman, undifferentiated invading aliens (i.e., foreigners, in the Lovecraftean sense), with no agency or internal life, whom you can only kill or be killed by?
posted by acb at 5:14 AM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


My newbie cleric of Desna just had a heart to heart with a more experienced priestess about how she just wanted the world to be fair and wanted to solve things with diplomacy instead of violence.

This feels similar to my warlock who is pacted to the Eye of the Void (basically Yog-Sothoth with the serial numbers filed off). She also believes very strongly in fairness and after witnessing some nobles slaughter a bunch of poor people from her neighborhood and get away with it is Very Interested in spreading Fairness (social, economic, racial, etc) across the Realms. Unfortunately, it's starting to seem like the best way to do that is to call upon the Eye to turn its horrible gaze upon the world. We're all fair as ashes, after all - no more pain, no more cruelty, just bliss in the Void.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:42 AM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


acb, of course everyone is going to draw their own lines. Personally I wouldn't feel bad about exterminating a nest of wasps in real life. I don't think they have enough agency or consciousness to worry about. If I were a D&D druid I might think differently. It might depend on if my DM gave them a personality when I cast "Speak with Animals" on them, or if I just got a hazy impression of information from them. But a good DM is going to be aware of the possibilities and consequences for characters who commit murder.

The Space Invaders might be mindless, or they might be Nazi-like, or they might be fleeing their own situation and unaware that WE have agency and consciousness. There are lots of great story possibilities to explore. Not being interested in who the Space Invaders are and why they are invading, but just killing them for killing's sake makes a really boring and bad story (which is one reason why that video game kind of sucks--there's no story at all there--as opposed to Donkey Kong, which was invented 3 years later, and Mario remains one of the most recognizable characters in the world, moreso than Mickey Mouse).

If your stories are built around killing beings that have agency and consciousness you really need to take on the moral weight of that and not handwave it as "oh, xenophobia is just a trope." I guess a lot of people play RPGs as murder simulators, but that's repulsive and antisocial. It's also normalized (even glorified) by American white supremacy culture. The FPP article makes very clear arguments why this is a really-not-good way to play.
posted by rikschell at 6:20 AM on July 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


Hunh. Barad-dûr. Birmingham. Who knew?

That is the problem with doing literary analysis without adequate historical background. There is just only so much that dissecting out themes and images and comparing them with those in other works is going to do for you.

IJWTS that if I were a Jewish kid I would be delighted to find Gimli and Dain of the Iron Hills on the list of Jewish archetypes I had to live up to, next to, or down. Tolkien did good work there.

Another last comment - Birmingham is actually surprisingly nice now

Oh, god damn it, I was cherishing hopes that somewhere in the world there actually was a vast black fortress shrouded in smoke, lit by unholy fires, and swarming with sallow, swarthy, shambling persons with fangs and unnatural appetites. NYC has let me down, and now Birmingham. I never would have gone, but I could have dreamed.
posted by ckridge at 6:21 AM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


Well, there was a plan a while ago to cloak the Whitehouse in artificial fog to prevent terrorist attacks.

Also, the UK headquarters of News Corp. is a 17-story wedge-shaped building in the shadow of the Shard in London. Some call it the “Baby Shard”, though others call it Murdor.
posted by acb at 6:31 AM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


NYC has let me down

Hudson Yard is basically the citadel from Half Life 2, if it helps.
posted by Artw at 6:46 AM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


Britain has more than one city

And more than one fantasy writer! Since I’m doing book recommendations in this thread, a contemporary of Tolkien’s at Oxford was Alan Garner, who also wrote fantasy novels that were strongly influenced by the clash between an urban centre and the bucolic countryside nearby. The famous example in Garner’s case is the criminally underrated Weirdstone of Brisingamen, set in and around Alderley Edge, near Manchester.

Featuring diminutive main characters (children, rather than hobbits) who are taken on an adventure by dwarves to retrieve an important gem, encountering goblins who live underground in mines and elves who live in a state of pastoral bliss and spurn the industrial revolution. (Despite the obvious similarities, it’s actually very different in tone to Tolkien’s work.)
posted by chappell, ambrose at 6:57 AM on July 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


The reason you use "orcs" in a setting is because you want to evoke some emotional resonance - the idea of a ruthless barbarian horde, of the senseless violence of conquerors. And those ideas, in turn, have emotional power because they draw upon allusions to real life - mongol hordes, vikings raiders, humans with their humanity ground out of them by war: all the different things discussed in the posted article and here.

Tolkien was writing back in the 20th century, when groundbreaking work was being done in turning whole peoples into monsters. The soldiers who carried out the various 20th-century genocides, mass civilian slaughters, mass rapes, burnings alive of women and children in their homes, and flash cookings of thousands of civilians to the depth of one-half inch on one side of their bodies were manufactured through control of schools and mass media. They were, like orcs, good people corrupted. Orcs are a fine representation of that sort of person.

What Tolkien does not address, because it is so difficult to comprehend, much less write well about, is that such creatures can, under other circumstances, be good, while staying able to become just that monstrous again. One can show that in games. It is easier that writing about it, because you only have to show glimpses. Just before your dragonriders attack the orc village, a soldier runs up and warns a teacher to get the children to safety. They run. A small orc child stands alone and confused. A girl runs back and fetches him along. Job done.
posted by ckridge at 7:12 AM on July 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


My 17th level Barbarian Social Justice Warrior attacks your dragonriders
posted by thelonius at 7:32 AM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


She also believes very strongly in fairness and after witnessing some nobles slaughter a bunch of poor people from her neighborhood and get away with it is Very Interested in spreading Fairness (social, economic, racial, etc) across the Realms. Unfortunately, it's starting to seem like the best way to do that is to call upon the Eye to turn its horrible gaze upon the world. We're all fair as ashes, after all - no more pain, no more cruelty, just bliss in the Void.

EYE OF THE VOID 2020
OBLIVION WE CAN BELIEVE-Y IN
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 7:40 AM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


The orcs and Mordor represent Britain, and British people, at least much as they reflect British fears of foreigners - the wrong sort of Britain and British people (for Tolkien).

I think the Scouring of the Shire is the best example of this, since it depicts all those pleasant little quasi-English hobbits from the start of the book turning all orcish (one of our heroes explicitly says so, even) under the influence of Saruman.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:17 AM on July 2, 2019


I know it can be rough having a literary hero criticized, but some of the defenses here are... not really defenses.

E.g., the orcs are really Cockneys, or Brummies, or infantrymen? That's not better. That's saying that Tolkien wasn't racist, but classist. Which, by the way, he was. Try reading LOTR paying attention to class issues, from why Bilbo has a fancy house to why Sam calls his employer "Master" to how kings are supposed to be treated. It's a conservative fantasy where the traditional elite always knows best. The Scouring of the Shire is a top-down aristocratic coup, where not only Saruman but also change and incipient industrialism are put down. It only goes down so easily because Frodo and Aragorn, unlike the real-world elite, are personally benign and generous.

As for "dehumanization is OK really"... no, sorry, it's still bad storytelling. You can still have a video game where you kill Nazis, of course— though that just piggybacks on our knowledge of howNazis are bad. That still doesn't justify treating all Germans as evil, or massacring German civilians or POWs, or hoping to destroy German prosperity after the war (as some people advocated).

Criticism doesn't mean that an author is all bad, or shouldn't be read! Tolkien has many fine points, and even undercuts the aristophilia with the progressive message that complete unknowns can play a key role in fighting evil. He has good insights into how good people can be mixed or corrupted. But the orcs are not a high point and they've been a terrible model for other fantasy.
posted by zompist at 9:01 AM on July 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


I know it can be rough having a literary hero criticized, but some of the defenses here are... not really defenses.

I think perhaps you’ve inadvertently recognised that the “defences” you’re identifying were never intended that way.

People have been pointing out that Orcs read more explicitly classist than racist... because they’re responding to the OP, which makes the case that Orcs are racial stereotypes of Asian people.

Not because they’re defending Tolkien as completely unproblematic.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 9:09 AM on July 2, 2019 [5 favorites]


People have been pointing out that Orcs read more explicitly classist than racist... because they’re responding to the OP, which makes the case that Orcs are racial stereotypes of Asian people.

There is no contradiction in orcs having oriental horde stereotypes for bodies and urban working class stereotypes for personalities. It is in fact classic erasure of people of color where their bodies are used while their culture is discarded. It is how you get blackface, or in this case fantasy yellowface.

But I don't think Tolkien wrote from a consciously racist standpoint.

TFA explicitly takes time to define the difference between racism and racial prejudice. It does seem that people are more interested in defending Tolkien's good name than engaging with the article.
posted by iamnotangry at 9:32 AM on July 2, 2019 [5 favorites]


There is no contradiction in orcs having oriental horde stereotypes for bodies and urban working class stereotypes for personalities.

Sure, but I didn’t say there was. I pointed out that the accusation of classism was in no way “a defence” of Tolkien.

“Class” takes up a similar space in UK history and politics as “race” does in the US. So it’s not surprising that British commentators are drawing attention to the very overt class prejudice demonstrated by Tolkien’s invention of Orcs.

The comment that I was responding to had misread those comments as a defence of Tolkien when it’s nothing of the sort.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 10:02 AM on July 2, 2019 [4 favorites]


>rikschell, I didn't mean to come across as endorsing the use of those tropes - just to say that by using the word "orc" rather than something else, you are invoking that association with the "barbarian horde" which does have some racist implications. And I guess I left it too much implied that, yes, that then puts an onus on you to engage with those tropes, hopefully in a thoughtful and respectful fashion.

So what I was trying to say is that this guy shouldn't be surprised if taking orcs and dehumanizing them more reads as WTF racist. If he wants some truly inhuman force that is pure malevolence, don't call them orcs. Because words mean things, especially in fantasy.

I agree with you completely about the use of "monstrousness." I had some seriously whiplash recently moving away from the Eberron setting, which as discussed above does away with the whole "inherently evil" thing and actually treats all intelligent creatures as having agency. I started playing in the Forgotten realms setting where the person running it did buy into the some races are "monstrous" and therefore inherently evil things. And then for some reason, let me play as a kobold.

I haven't played in a setting like that in my adult life. I guess I didn't quite grasp the implications.

To paraphrase the result of a few conversations:

Okay so, my people are hated and feared because they're good at traps?

Yep.

So self defense then?

I guess.

And I hate elves because... they came from another plane then pretty quickly developed a genocidal magical superweapon that made dragons go insane... a superweapon that just caused major cataclysmic damage to the world again because the comet or asteroid or whatever it was on wandered past?

Basically.

And I hate gnomes because their god tried to kill the king of kobolds for what, admittedly may have been understandable reasons, but ended up just destroying the city of kobolds and causing mass civilian casualties?

Something like that.

So.... this all seems like kobolds are perfectly justified in a lot of these things here. Why are we the "bad guys" again?

Uhh well you raid villages sometimes and steal things?

Well adventurers raid kobold warrens all the time, steal things, and murder everyone. At the very least kobolds don't seem to be any worse than those humans. And it's not like one could make peace, they just call kobolds "monsters" and try to kill them on sight. I'm starting to think my character wouldn't even be wrong to consider these "civilized races" to be genocidal maniacs. So uhmm, why are we the bad guys?

Well it says right there in the book kobolds are "vile" and "evil!"

Those are loaded, subjective words that don't really have any objective meaning. All that tells me is whoever wrote that was biased. Are there any factual reasons I should think kobolds are evil?

Those are the sourcebooks! They are canon and you have to treat them as objective truth! You can't read them as if there's a "point of view to them."

You can't treat something as "objective' when it's full of subjective langua... you know what, nevermind.

...

I think at the heart of the problem is that a lot of D&D settings have a more Manichean sense of good and evil: there is team light and team dark and they are constantly at war, and it matters who you're fighting for, not what you do. However, the rules for alignment try to frame it in the form of more utilitarian/humanitarian ethics where good is about what you do: good aligned creatures respect the sanctity of life and don't hurt others without being threatened themselves and evil creatures don't respect the sanctity of life and hurt others for whatever reasons they feel like.

But these two worldviews aren't reconcilable. The moment you decide a group is "monstrous" and can't be negotiated with, you yourself become a monster because, to them, you are now an unreasoning force of destruction that can only be met with violence.

And I understand the wanting to have your cake and eat it, too: a fairytale setting where Good is good and Evil is evil. But that takes a lot of work if you want a story that doesn't go real morally gray really fast the moment you scratch the surface.
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:36 AM on July 2, 2019 [3 favorites]


Zalzidrax, yeah, sorry. I didn't get that while you were saying "orcs are tool X" you weren't endorsing the use of tool X. It's a shitty tool and we have much better ones available now.

You're right that D&D hasn't worked out the good & evil problem. Early on, it was simple enough that adventurers were good and monsters were bad. We used to play Cowboys & Indians, dear god. Ends justified means. Mutually assured destruction. Crazy times in the world.

I'm trying to do better in the games I run. Good intentions don't count for much. Good outcomes for some people are a disaster for others. At the same time, I want to let my players be heroic and have an impact on the world, even if they can't solve every problem.

For Sixth Edition, whenever that happens, I hope they (A) hire a bunch more designers of color and different national origins, (B) let a character's heritage add flavor but not affect the numbers--as the article suggests--and (C) wrestle with the alignment system that has drawn major criticism in every age and has never really worked as intended anyway.
posted by rikschell at 11:10 AM on July 2, 2019


Not because they’re defending Tolkien as completely unproblematic.

For my part, I just think the conversation is more interesting when the full nuances are included.

One of the origin stories for Tolkien's orcs, for instance, is that the first generation of them were elves who embraced Morgoth's ideology of subjugation -- which is again mirrored by the Scouring of the Shire -- and subsequent generations were raised in a society based on that ideology. The idea that orcs are genetically evil is mostly an idea introduced by D&D. Tolkien was pretty clear at multiple points in his published works that anybody could turn orcish if they embraced an orcish ideology.

But you do, after all, have to square that with the fact that he assigns the orcs racialised traits that would be entirely at home on one of those horrible Dr. Seuss anti-Japanese propaganda posters. I don't blame anyone who finds that off-putting and decides not to read the books based on that. Not at all. There's lots of other stuff out there to read anyway.

My only real point is that Tolkien's work is both things. And unlike, say, HP Lovecraft, I think the core thematics of Tolkien's work are sound and admirable and powerful and worthy of continued engagement, despite the very glaring flaws in it. Ironically for someone who frequently relies on colonialist racial descriptions, the story of LotR is fundamentally compatible with decolonial ideologies. It's all about the necessity of dismantling the tools of subjugation (the Ring) even if that means giving up some nice, pleasant, comfortable things (like the Elven realms on Middle-Earth, the Elves themselves, and really magic in general).

Especially in a world where there's obviously a huge market for fantasy epics and Tolkien's only serious competition in that regard leans allllllllllllllll the way in to cynicism and worship of power, I think it's worth holding on to the good parts of LotR while still critiquing the bad parts. (But mostly I get annoyed when people straight-up invent things to throw at Tolkien, like the antisemitism thing, when there's plenty to critique that actually appears in his texts.)
posted by tobascodagama at 11:18 AM on July 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


(Oh, but for the record, I agree that "no, they're actually Brummies" is not a particularly good defense for Tolkien's depiction of the orcs, despite the fact that Tolkien's whole pastoralist/anti-industrial thing was undeniably influenced by his exposure to Birmingham.)
posted by tobascodagama at 11:25 AM on July 2, 2019


ckridge: (How he gets Mongols out of orcs is not at all clear to me.)

Tolkien, in a letter quoted in the introduction of the article: wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.

Not sure how much more clear it needs to be.

The part-orc humans are described consistently as "squinty," "slant-eyed."

The very first time I read that, as (the Korean equivalent of) a seventh grader, I knew exactly who he was talking about. He was talking about me.

(But I kept reading, because I loved the book. Not least of the violences done by racism is this: that we love the things that do not love us back.)

Yes, the orcs are also Cockneys. Yes, so are the trolls in The Hobbit. Yes, the Dwarves love gold like Shylock loves money. Yes, the Dwarves are also stout fighters and great craftsmen and have names straight out of the Voluspa, none of which maps to anti-Semitic stereotype. Doesn't matter. There's no contradiction there. Partially because these are fictional creations that can draw inspiration from multiple sources. But mostly because racism/classism themselves do not, and have never, concerned themselves with logical consistency.
posted by what does it eat, light? at 4:55 PM on July 2, 2019 [14 favorites]


Being a bit naive, I had thought that this bit from The Hobbit was an upper class Brit drawing a picture of a generic bourgeois:
There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect too much.
...but Tolkien clarified: "The dwarves of course are quite obviously, wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?"

I had not picked up on the orc-Asian connection, but it's pretty obvious once it's pointed out.

Tolkien was 100% about the idea that blood is fate. Racial blood, class blood, royal blood, fairy blood, whatever blood you like.
posted by clawsoon at 7:45 PM on July 2, 2019 [7 favorites]


I remember thinking the orcs were pretty cool when I first read The Hobbit when I was a kid, and I was even a little mad about the xenophobia.

Like, "Barbaric? Wait, what's this about an entire city built into a mountain and what appears to be advanced tool use and a highly organized society? Hobbits have what, a small village of holes in the ground? Wait, what are you fiends doing, where are you going? I want to know more about the orcs!"
posted by loquacious at 7:49 PM on July 2, 2019 [6 favorites]


The latest #metafiltersowhite thread is still linked at the top of the site, but people can't even read the comments in this thread before jumping in to explain to PoC how there is no racism.

I am so tired. Just so very tired.
posted by iamnotangry at 8:12 AM on July 3, 2019 [2 favorites]


("Don't worry, Jewish child! You don't only have miserly grasping hooknosed stereotypes to contend with! You also have 'positive' stereotypes to live up to, like being a gold-obsessed, insular, stubborn, calculating, 'decent enough if you don't expect too much' dwarf!" is a crappy take.)
posted by ChuraChura at 8:29 AM on July 3, 2019 [5 favorites]


[One comment deleted. Revising my original note here. If you find yourself really vigorously and persistently pushing back on the idea that something is racist, or splitting hairs about which exact pieces are racist, such that you ever find yourself typing something that could remotely be paraphrased as "sure, the racism is bad, however --"... especially if you're talking to someone who's in the group affected by the racist thing... then it's time to stop.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:38 AM on July 3, 2019 [4 favorites]


...but Tolkien clarified: "The dwarves of course are quite obviously, wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews?"

I hadn't seen that interview before. Yikes, point conceded.
posted by tobascodagama at 10:45 AM on July 3, 2019 [7 favorites]


I can't find it right now, but I think there's a mistake in the transcript and the part that reads like a rhetorical question is actually the interviewer. Doesn't change much, but it's a bit less unequivocal.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:14 PM on July 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


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