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On the Problem of Orcs


Orcs are popular characters in a certain kind of fantasy story, and more recently also in the kind of games based on it. While I certainly love the works of J.R.R.Tolkien, the father of modern fantasy and the guy who coined the term ‘orc’, there is something dark to the idea too with a lot of potential for evil abuse,which is the ‘problem of the orcs’ that I will try to explore in this essay.

Let’s start first with the beginning, and with the definition of our main term. Tolkiens orcs are humanoids, a kind of goblin. Most notably orcs are dangerous and ugly and live underground, use violence freely, usually don’t like sunlight, and even eat the meat of humans when they can. But the most characteristic thing about orcs in the middle-Earth universe is that they are pure evil. Not just a bit, but completely. Orcs are pure monsters that are thoroughly bad, so much that there is no chance at all of one of them ever being good.

Their evilness has something to do with their role and origin. They are used by the dark lord Sauron, created by the powers of evil, and might even be dependent upon him. So them being instruments of evil, the only thing anyone on the good side can do with them is destroy them. Unlike humans and most fantasy humanoids no matter how evil in Tolkiens books, there is no chance for redemption or reform for the orc. We can see the difference very clearly in the LOTR books. When the battle of helms deep is over, the surviving humans from the enemy, originally recruited by the fallen wizard Saruman get mercy. They are humans. Same with other beings including the repulsive and quite evil creature Gollum -technically more or less a mutated hobbit deformed by evil-, who does get the benefit of the doubt from Gandalf.

But no such thing ever happens for orcs.

Orcs are in a way flat characters. They are an archetype for something like the executive forces of evil. A personification of the forces of destruction, hate and decay in the form of a more or less humanoid sentient being which is a slave of the dark lord. And in a story of fight between good and evil there is only one thing that can be done with them: they need to be destroyed! All of them! Without mercy!

A good orc is a dead orc!

Now I do like Tolkien and his books. And I understand his use of beings that are pure evil as instruments of the evil dark lord. Such things might indeed exist in fictional worlds (or even our world!) They can also have a lot of symbolical meanings: the evils we have to fight in either our society or our own lives (what some Muslims call the greater Jihad) or even literal demons if you believe in those.

But still there is a big problem with the idea of the orc, although not in the idea itself but more in the possible abuse of the idea. The orc trope of a humanoid being that is purely evil and utterly beyond redemption, and ultimately just destined for destruction when good conquers evil is can easily go wrong.

This is probably one of the reasons Tolkien didn’t like his LOTR trilogy to be seen as allegorical and a symbolic retelling of WWI by the way. Even with all the forces of evil in the background all Germans are still humans, and not orcs and I am quite sure that Tolkien as a Catholic would never equate humans with orcs, even though they’re on the other side of a war.

The picture of an orc is powerful in propaganda techniques, and very dangerous. From the moment we turn any human being into an orc, we cross the line of dehumanisation. It’s a technique that is as old as human wars probably. And it’s wrong and evil, at least as dark as the heart of the worst orc of Mordor! But it often works. Humans like to think in ‘us and them’ dichotomies, and sometimes the ‘them’ side is seen as so ‘other’ and so dangerous that they evil and beyond redemption, and killing them is the only option. The enemy gets reduced to a kind of orcs.

Certainly this is an irrational impulse, and from any rational Christian or humanist POV this purely is an abomination. Every human being is made in Gods image, and no human is beyond redemption. But strangely enough Christians sometimes use similar techniques, especially when influenced by certain endtimes-stories. Johan Klein Haneveld in a recent essay about Christian fantasy and endtimes-stories (in Dutch, sorry) notes how in the ‘Left behind’ series the non-believers are reduced to something that in the terminology of this post can be seen as an equivalent as an orc. In fact the whole dispensationalist endtimes scenario in which the unbelievers are part of the ‘forces of evil’ makes it hard for certain Christians to see the other as human.

Talking about a friend who believed in an update of the dispensational endtimes story which saw a union of Muslim countries as the final oppressors (instead of the EU or UN in earlier versions) of the endtimes, Johan remarks:

If you portray people as an enemy, you’ll treat them likewise. My friend admitted that it was hard for him to love Muslims, since he believed in this view of the future. He needed to do his best to see them as individuals, and not take them responsible for the tribulation that would follow in the endtimes.
Likewise the ‘Left Behind’  series didn’t help Christians to love their enemies. (…) No, instead they stimulated ‘us-them’ thinking and aroused a fear for the evil outer world, in which everyone could turn out to be an evil oppressor of Christians. (…)
And the reader of the books was taught to see democrats, liberals and dissenters as one-dimensional characters that deserved to go to hell.

These “one-dimensional characters that deserve to go to hell” are certainly very close to orcs I would say. They are not loved, they are not mourned, and God will destroy them anyway so who bothers, good riddance! (And in this most of the words of Christ are swept under the mat, along with the most radical parts of the bible) And the potential for abuse of this discourse goes far beyond this kind of ‘Christianity’.  Later in the essay Johan quotes from a New York Times article about Racist Science Fiction in the US.

‘Ward Kendall’s 2001 “Hold Back This Day,” imagines a future in which the evil all-powerful “World Gov” has forcibly united the population of Earth under one religion and, by way of enforced race-mixing, one uniformly brown-skinned population. Jeff Huxton … slowly learns to cherish his white skin and joins a terrorist group called “Nayra” (“Aryan” spelled backwards!). They hijack a spaceship and travel to Avalon, a secret all-white colony on Mars, which has been transformed into a paradisiacal homeland.’

Johan then adds that “he has seen that plot before, and well in ‘Left behind'”. Here we see all ‘non-white’ people reduced to some kind of orcs. Something that has happened before in real life by the way, and is certainly quite evil. How those people can claim a ‘Christian’ identity is beyond me. (Jesus wasn’t even ‘white’, whatever that word even means, and he came for people of all kinds.)

Let’s not forget that all humans are of our species, and made in Gods image.

Seeing the other as an orc of any is always a dangerous lie. All lives matter! (Even non-human lives do have their importance too evidently. But that would be another post.) This is also true even if they’re on the other side of a war or conflict. Even if they’re very different. Human lives are important!

In the end the actual enemy is not the human being on the other side in the other trench who is feeling the same fear as us and wants to stay alive like us, but the forces that make us enemies. Lies, systems, powers, whatever…
No human is ever beyond a chance of redemption (even though the evil they commit remains very real) I believe that as a Christian. Even the most evil person has a capacity of repentance! The question of evil humans is an interesting one though. Maybe there indeed is a point of no return after which a certain human being is completely evil. But who are we to judge that even with the worst criminal? Half of the new testament was written by a man who tried to erase Christianity with violence before his conversion, and approved of killing Christians! Maybe there are points that for the protection of the innocent a human has to be killed in defence. That’s all possible.

But no human is an orc.

Even worse is using a form of ‘identity politics’ in which certain groups of people (the enemy, other races, one of the sexes, people of a certain persuasion or religion, the oppressed or the oppressors, fans of nickleback, whatever…) are orcs beyond redemption. This is a very grave form of dehumanisation that will make us less human, and closer to being an orc ourselves… A human is always more than a member of a certain identity group.

And so for a Christian there is no fellow human that we should see as beyond redemption. No enemy that can be turned into an orc that should be slain without mercy.

We’re all human!

what do you think?

peace

Bram