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Psychopaths 2: Tolkien, Orcs, Evil and the Sex Life of Elves

Where do Orcs come from? This is in the context of Lord Of The Rings, of course. Tolkien’s Orcs are the definitive humanoid monster. Interchangeable and disposable, malign and brutish.

Tolkien left a number of hints for us, scattered across various works. The definitive explanation is probably in The Silmarillion. The chief villain, Morgoth, captures a number of Elves, and does something unspecified (but terribly evil) with them. The Elves are gone, but after a while, hordes of Orcs emerge – monstrous and ugly, but in some way derived from the Elves.

What is never explained is how Morgoth does this. It’s a given, from the start of the Silmarillion, that fundamental creation would be impossible for Morgoth. He’s made them from something else. But how does he make Elves – the highest, noblest beings on Middle-Earth – turn so horribly wrong?

There’s a clue given in the very nature of Elves. Elves are immortal. They live forever – or at least, until the world ends. Even when they die, their souls are held in a metaphysical bonded warehouse until they are reborn.

So while Elves seem superficially like humans, it’s clear that they can’t reproduce in the same way. They remain young, and presumably fertile, for millenia. Even a very slow birth rate would result in Middle-Earth being over-run with immortal Elves. We can see from the examples Tolkien gives that in fact Elvish families tend to be small.

The reason for this may well be simply that there are only so many Elf souls to go round. They don’t get created anew each time like human (or Hobbit) souls. There was a pool allocated at the start, and it never increases or decreases. This would explain why Elf relationships seem for the most part to be quite passionless. Galadriel and Celeborn? No particular wildness or extravagance. The only time that Elves seem to become excitable is when one of them falls in love with a human – Luthien  with Beren, or less happily, Finduilas with Turin. The rest of the time, they are cold and restrained. So they ought to be – if they know that a new Elf can only be produced when a soul is ready to be embedded. The rest of the time, they have to just wait.

However, what would happen if they didn’t? This is where conjecture entirely takes over. Suppose what Morgoth did with the captured Elves was to make them reproduce? What would have happened? Assuming that Elves were biologically similar to humans, a new creature would be produced – but no soul would be available. Would that be how an Orc might be made?

Such a creature would have no soul. It would be a philosophical zombie – behaving like an intelligent being, but lacking experience or consciousness. It would be no more than a machine – able to be used by any controlling power capable of directing it.

This has the advantage, as a point of view, of resolving one of the ethical quandaries that a number of commentators find in Lord Of The Rings. From Auden to Pratchett, fans of the book have found the treatment of Orcs problematic. Can it really be right to condemn an entire species of intelligent beings to extermination in this way? If they are in fact nothing more than mechanisms, then there is no ethical issue.

However, this may be just a little too easy. While Tolkien himself abhorred prejudice, and wrote an anti-racist parable with the friendship of Legolas and Gimli, still any rationalisation of the treatment of the Orcs seems a little bit convenient. One can imagine Gondorian Nazis repeating this explanation to each other as they ride out to exterminate an Orc village, like Sherman’s cavalry wiping out the Plains Indians. The psychopath ignores the humanity of others. We have to be wary of stories that do the same.


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  1. The Immortal Mortals « Stories in 5 Minutes
  2. The Tolkiens « Stories in 5 Minutes
  3. A Month Of Middle Earth « Lily Wight

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