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General Information
MembersGothmog, Othrod, Azog, Gorbag
Physical Description
DistinctionsShort, sallow
Average heightprobably just above 5'[source?]
GalleryImages of Orcs

Orcs (also called Goblins) were the footsoldiers of evil overlords - Morgoth, Sauron and the Witch-king of Angmar.



Origins and early Years

The Orcs were bred by Melkor in mockery of the Elves, sometime during the Great Darkness.[1][2]

It is unclear when exactly Orcs were created, but it certainly happened before the War for Sake of the Elves in his stronghold of Utumno. If the Orcs where at this time a capable fighting force against the host of Valinor is not known. But at least some of them survived this war, probably hidden in the deep vaults of Angband and multiplied, waiting for their master.

When Melkor (now known as Morgoth) returned to Middle-earth he created new hordes of Orcs and invaded Beleriand, where the First Battle of Beleriand took place. Orcs fought also in Dagor-nuin-Giliath.

First Age

Orcs appear in the First Age as the core force of Morgoth. Hundreds of thousands of Orcs were bred in Angband to participate in the Battles of Beleriand, which lasted 587 years.

Orcs first appear in the First Age in the Battle of the Lammoth, where they were defeated by Fingolfin and his Noldor. Orcs participated in battles such as the Dagor Aglareb, Dagor Bragollach, Nirnaeth Arnoediad, Fall of the Falas, and finally in the War of Wrath, were they were almost extinguished. Those that survived the defeat fled eastwards and hid probably in the Mountains of Angmar and the Ered Mithrin.

Second Age

At around the year thousand Sauron reappeared, took the land of Mordor as his realm and started the construction of Barad-dûr. It is likely that most of his servants where Orcs at this time that he had gathered under his command. Still for a long time Sauron's foul servants did not play an important role, for the Dark Lord had chosen a more subtle way to overthrow the free people by creating the Rings of Power.

During the War of the Elves and Sauron, in S.A.1700 Orcs formed the main power of Sauron's host. Despite the immeasurable number of Orcs, Sauron was defeated by the united hosts of Elves and Númenóreans. Still Sauron was powerful east of the Misty Mountains and the inlands and the Orcs that inhabited the mountains multiplied.

The Orcs of the Misty Mountains started a war against the Dwarves, resulting in the First Sack of Gundabad and its occupation by the Orcs. Finally, Orcs were the core force of Sauron during the War of the Last Alliance, and fought in great battles such as the Battle of Dagorlad and the Siege of Barad-dûr.

Third Age

During the Third Age, Orcs were the standard troops of the Witch-king of Angmar and Sauron (both in Mordor and in Dol Guldur).

In Angmar, Orcs fought in the Angmar War. Years later, they invaded Eriador under the leadership of the Necromancer.

The Orcs of the Misty Mountains, one of the few (more or less) independent Orcish societies, and their leader Azog started out the War of the Dwarves and Orcs, and after their defeat they retreated in their caves. They appeared again in T.A. 2941, when the Battle of Five Armies took place.

The Orcs of Mordor fought in major battles during the War of the Ring, such as the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, but the entire Mordor force was destroyed in the Battle of the Morannon.

The Orcs in Dol Guldur remained in Mirkwood until the Fall of Dol Guldur, one of the last battles of the War of the Ring.

Fourth Age and beyond

Although the entire force of Sauron was destroyed after the War of the Ring, it is assumed that many Orcs continued to live beneath the Misty Mountains and caused little trouble.[source?]



It is certain all Orcs were dependent on the Dark Lord in various ways: after their leader was defeated, the Orcs were confused and dismayed, and easily scattered by their enemies. In the millennia after Morgoth's defeat and banishment from Arda, they were without a leader they degenerated to small, quarrelsome tribes hiding in the Misty Mountains. Only when Sauron returned to power did they begin to reclaim some of their old power. The same happened after Sauron's defeat by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men: only when Sauron returned as the Necromancer of Mirkwood did the Orcs become a real danger for Middle-earth again.

It is interesting to note that to an extent, Tolkien did not regard Orcs as evil in their own right, but only as tools of Melkor and Sauron. He wrote once that "we were all orcs in the Great War".[source?]


It is unknown if the Orcs were immortal like the Elves. There is, in any case, a hint for a long livespan in the story of two of the most famous Orc-chieftains: Azog and Bolg. Bolg, being the son of Azog, was the chieftain of the Orcs who attacked Erebor in the Battle of Five Armies in T.A. 2941. Azog himself was killed in the Battle of Azanulbizar in T.A. 2799, so Bolg was aproximately 150 years old.


In Tolkien's writing, Orcs are described as humanoid, roughly human-sized, ugly and filthy. Although not dim-witted, they are portrayed as dull and miserable beings, who corrupt words and are only able to destroy, not to create. They had sour black blood.[source?]

Kinds of Orcs

Tolkien loosely implies that there are actually several different breeds of Orcs, not simply in the wide variety in clans, but strains of Orc that were specifically bred for certain tasks.

The Fellowship usually encounters the large soldier-Orcs bred for war, and sometimes the "snaga" variety which were more geared towards being labourers. However, a strong hint at the variety of Orc breeds is when Frodo and Sam are in Mordor, and realize that they are being followed by two Orcs, then hide to observe them. One of the Orcs is a normal soldier-Orc, but the other is described as a "Snuffler", a breed specifically geared towards being a tracker. This tracker-Orc was, compared to the soldier-Orc, physically unimposing, but had vastly overdeveloped sensory organs, particularly a single giant nostril. While physically weak compared to the soldier-Orc, the "snuffler" was able to skilfully kill the soldier-orc when they got into a disagreement.

Orcs and Goblins

The term goblin was used primarily in The Hobbit but also in The Lord of the Rings where it is used synonymously with "Orc".[3][4]

"Goblin" is an English word, whereas "Orcs" is Old English, the language used by Tolkien to represent Rohirric.[5] Thus, there is no difference between Orcs and Goblins, and the two names of different languages have much the same relationship as dog (English) and hund (German).

The original edition of The Hobbit and early drafts of The Lord of the Rings first used "goblin" everywhere and used "hobgoblin" for larger, more evil goblins: when goblins were replaced with Orcs Tolkien invented the term Uruk-hai for his more evil Orcs.



The word Orc is said to be the "form of the name that other races had for this foul people as it was in the language of Rohan".[6]

In his late, post-Lord of the Rings writings, Tolkien preferred the spelling Ork.[7] This was evidently mainly to avoid the form Orcish, which would be naturally pronounced with the c as /s/ instead of /k/. (In Tolkien's languages the letter c was always pronounced /k/.) It is also possible that the word is a Common Tongue Version of 'orch', the Sindarin word for Orc. The original sense of the word seems to be "bogey", "bogeyman", that is, something that provokes fear, as seen in the Quenya cognate urko, pl. urqui.[source?]

Tolkien derived the word orc from Old English believing it refers to a kind of evil spirits,[8][9] which in turn derives from Latin Orcus "Hades". He also thought it survives in the modern language for sea-beasts,[10] such as the Orca Whale.

Orc is an Old English word that refers mainly to a kind of metal cup (from Latin Urceus).[note 1] However, in a 11th century glossary, this entry was conflated with another entry which refers to evil giants such as þyrs and other monsters, also glossed in Latin as Orcus. This merge of the two entries made many philologists of the previous centuries, like Tolkien, to believe that Orc was an actual Old English word that refers to any kind of evil creature from the underworld.[11]

The word Orcnéas is once found only in Beowulf (lines 112-113) and is cited as an example of the word "Orc" in Old English text. Actually its meaning is not clear, and it is thought to refer to corpses (néas) from the Underworld.

However, it is also mentioned that the word Orc is Anglo-Saxon for "Foreigner, Monster, Demon" and was used to refer to the Normans invading the Anglish in 1066.[12]

"Orcs" in Tolkien's languages

Tolkien said that one of the reason of choosing "Orc" over "Goblin" was the similarity with his fictional languages.[13] Indeed most Elvish, Mannish and other words for Orc, are similar to the English word.

The basic Primitive Quendian root, from which the words for Orc derive, is RUKU (said to refer to any "bogey" that scared the Elves)[13]:

In the earliest versions of Qenya, Tolkien had words such as "Ork (orq-) pl. Orqi and fem. "orqindi".[source?]

In Noldorin, the earlier version of Sindarin, the word for Orc is the same: orch (pl yrch).[20][21][22] The Gnomish word for "one of a tribe of the orcs. a goblin" is said to be Gong.[23]


Goblin is a folk word which according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English is probably derived from the Anglo-French gobelin a diminutive of gobel (cf. kobold). William D.B. Loos notes that goblin is a Romance-derived word, unlike other Germanic words preferred by Tolkien.[24]

"Goblin" in Tolkien's languages

In the Etymologies, the Elvish names used to translate "goblin" derive from root ÓROK and are:[20]

In an early linguistic writing, Tolkien translated the Gnomish word Gong as "one of a tribe of the orcs. a goblin."[26]

Other Versions of the Lengendarium


The origin of Orcs is an open question. In Tolkien's writings, evil is not capable of independent creation, making it unlikely that the Vala Melkor, who was obviously the first to produce them, could do that ex nihilo.

According to the oldest "theory" proposed by Tolkien, Orcs were made of stone and slime through the sorcery of Morgoth. But, Tolkien later changed the legendarium so that Morgoth could no longer produce life on his own.

While Tolkien at some point saw Orcs as descended from tortured Elves, later comments of his indicate, according to Christopher Tolkien in Morgoth's Ring ("Myths Transformed, text X"), that he began to feel uncomfortable with the theory that orcs were descending from Elves. However, Tolkien died before he could complete his upheaval of the cosmology, and in the published version of The Silmarillion, the Elf origin of Orcs was adopted. It does not appear that the elder Tolkien ever decided on a definitive answer.

A list of origins, proposed by Tolkien :

Made from the earth -

The first origin idea (found in The Fall of Gondolin, from The Book of Lost Tales, circa 1917 — the first tale of Middle-earth to be written in full), Orcs were made of stone and slime through the sorcery of Morgoth :

"bred from the heats and slimes of the earth"[27]

East Elves (Avari) -

The Silmarillion contains a suggestion that Orcs are descended from East Elves captured by Melkor, their minds and bodies distorted and corrupted.

"Yet this is held true by the wise of Eressëa, that all those of the Quendi [Elves] who came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty were corrupted and enslaved; and thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orcs in envy and mockery of the Elves, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes....This it may be was the vilest deed of Melkor, and the most hateful to Ilúvatar."[28]

This corrupted elves origin is probably the one used in Peter Jackson's live action films. In the film of The Two Towers, Saruman says -

"Do you know how the Orcs first came into being? They were elves once, taken by the dark powers, tortured and mutilated. A ruined and terrible form of life..."

Of course this leaves open the possibility of one of the mixed origins (see below) being true in the films, as this was how they "first" appeared, not discounting other corrupted creatures or men being added to the ranks later.

Sentient beasts -

Another of Tolkien's theories proposes that Orcs may have begun as soulless animals of vaguely humanoid shapes, empowered by the will of the Dark Lord (Morgoth) and learning language only as parrots do:

"The Orcs were beasts of humanized shape (to mock Men and Elves) deliberately perverted I converted into a more close resemblance to Men. Their 'talking' was really reeling off 'records' set in them by Melkor. Even their rebellious critical words - he knew about them. Melkor taught them speech and as they bred they inherited this; and they had just as much independence as have, say, dogs or horses of their human masters. This talking was largely echoic (cf. parrots)."[29]

Later in the same text he theorizes that some Orcs may have been Elves, who then mated with these beasts and with Men.

"It remains therefore terribly possible there was an Elvish strain in the Orcs. These may then even have been mated with beasts (sterile!) - and later Men. Their life-span would be diminished. And dying they would go to Mandos and be held in prison till the End."[29]

Fallen Maiar -

There are hints in the History of Middle-earth series of books, (especially in Morgoth's Ring in the section "Myths Transformed"), that some Orc leaders, such as the First Age's Boldog, or the Great Goblin encountered by Bilbo and the Dwarves, may in fact have been fallen Maiar which had taken Orc form:

"Some of these things may have been delusions and phantoms but some were no doubt shapes taken by the servants of Melkor, mocking and degrading the very forms of the children. For Melkor had in his service great numbers of Maiar, who had the power, as their Master, of taking visible and tangible shape in Arda."[30]
"Boldog (…) is a name that occurs many times in the tales of the War. But it is possible that Boldog was not a personal name, and either a title, or else the name of a kind of creature: the Orc-formed Maiar, only less formidable than the Balrogs" [31]
"Melkor had corrupted many spirits — some great as Sauron, or less as Balrogs. The least could have been primitive Orcs."[32]

Corrupted Men-

It seems Tolkien wanted to change the origin of the Orcs to make them corrupted and twisted Humans. He says of this Human origin view of the Orcs :

"This view of the origin of the Orcs thus meets with difficulties of chronology. But though Men may take comfort in this, the theory remains nonetheless the most probable. It accords with all that is known of Melkor, and of the nature and behaviour of Orcs - and of Men. Melkor was impotent to produce any living thing, but skilled in the corruption of things that did not proceed from himself, if he could dominate them."[33]

Also in Unfinished Tales there is a passage about the Drúedain which says :

"To the unfriendly who, not knowing them well, declared that Morgoth must have bred the Orcs from such a stock the Eldar answered: 'Doubtless Morgoth, since he can make no living thing, bred Orcs from various kinds of Men, but the Drúedain must have escaped his shadow; for their laughter and the laughter of Orcs are as different as the light of Aman from the darkness of Angband.' But some thought, nonetheless, that there had been a remote kinship, which accounted for their special enmity. Orcs and Drûgs each regarded the other as renegades."[34]

Tolkien would have had to change the cosmology and prehistory of Arda, for the awakening of Men to happen earlier, for there to have been Men for Morgoth or Sauron to corrupt. He did not live long enough to complete this task however.

A mix of corrupted Elves and Men -

A late idea of Tolkien seems to be that Orcs (or Orks, showing the late spelling change) had a mixed origin of Elves and Men. In a note included in the "Myths Transformed" section of Morgoth's Ring (probably written in the late 1950s) he says :

"Since Melkor could not 'create' an independent species, but had immense powers of corruption and distortion of those that came into his power, it is probable that these Orks had a mixed origin. Most of them plainly (and biologically) were corruptions of Elves (and probably later also of Men). But always among them (as special servants and spies of Melkor, and as leaders) there must have been numerous corrupted minor spirits who assumed similar bodily shapes. (These would exhibit terrifying and demonic characters.)"[35]

Some cross-bred with Men -

Tolkien also suggested that Men were cross-bred with Orcs under Morgoth's lieutenant, Sauron (and possibly under Morgoth himself). The process was later repeated during the War of the Ring by Saruman. This possibly refers to the way the Uruk-hai and the Half-Orcs were created, in The Lord of the Rings.

"There is no doubt that long afterwards, in the Third Age, Saruman rediscovered this, or learned of it in lore, and in his lust for mastery committed this, his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile."[33]


Tolkien's Orcs have allegedly been a subject of criticism of racism. Tolkien described Orcs as "squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types".[36] Another possible offensive theme present in orcs (though not necessarily racist), is the fact that when the orcs talk, they often use the same phrases and accents that the English working-class is known to use.[source?]

Portrayal in Adaptations


"...there is much else that may be told." — Glóin
This article or section is a stub. Please help Tolkien Gateway by expanding it.


2003: The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring:

Goblins have been made clearly distinct from Orcs.

2006: The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II:

Goblins have been made clearly distinct from Orcs.

2007: The Lord of the Rings Online:

Goblins are small in stature; a little shorter than Hobbits. In contracts, Orcs are about the size of Men. Goblins are also weaker than the orcs.

See also


  1. The word Orc occurs twice in Beowulf.
  2. Orchoth is likely a compound of orch + hoth.
  3. Rukhs appears to contain the radical R-Kh-S.


  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor"
  2. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "Treebeard"
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, "The Departure of Boromir"
  4. Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (eds), The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, p. 24
  5. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, "The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age", "Of Other Races"
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, "The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age", "Of Other Races"
  7. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Peoples of Middle-earth
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 144, (dated 25 April 1954)
  9. J.R.R. Tolkien, "Gene Wolfe 7 November 1966" (letter)
  10. J.R.R. Tolkien, "Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings" in Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull (eds), The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion, p. 762
  11. Bosworth and Toller's An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1898), corrected in later editions
  12. "1066 The Battle for Middle Earth" 2009 (documentary)
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 13.7 J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The War of the Jewels, "Part Four. Quendi and Eldar: Appendix C. Elvish names for the Orcs", pp. 389-91
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 J.R.R. Tolkien, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", in Parma Eldalamberon XVII (edited by Christopher Gilson), p. 47
  15. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The War of the Jewels, "The Grey Annals": §27, p. 12
  16. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, pp. 74, 194
  17. 17.0 17.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", in Parma Eldalamberon XVII (edited by Christopher Gilson), pp. 52-4
  18. J.R.R. Tolkien, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", in Parma Eldalamberon XVII (edited by Christopher Gilson), p. 99
  19. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Ride of the Rohirrim"
  20. 20.0 20.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Lost Road and Other Writings, "Part Three: The Etymologies", p. 379 (entry for ÓROK)
  21. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Three. The Later Quenta Silmarillion: (I) The First Phase: 7. Of the Flight of the Noldor", p. 195
  22. J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, "A Secret Vice", p. 217
  23. J.R.R. Tolkien, "I-Lam na-Ngoldathon: The Grammar and Lexicon of the Gnomish Tongue", in Parma Eldalamberon XI (edited by Christopher Gilson, Arden R. Smith, and Patrick H. Wynne), p. 41
  24. William D.B. Loos, Enemies and Miscellaneous: What was the relationship between Orcs and Goblins? at The Tolkien Frequently Asked Questions List (accessed 3 July 2011)
  25. J.R.R. Tolkien, "Addenda and Corrigenda to the Etymologies — Part Two" (edited by Carl F. Hostetter and Patrick H. Wynne), in Vinyar Tengwar, Number 46, July 2004, p. 7
  26. J.R.R. Tolkien, "I-Lam na-Ngoldathon: The Grammar and Lexicon of the Gnomish Tongue", in Parma Eldalamberon XI (edited by Christopher Gilson, Arden R. Smith, and Patrick H. Wynne), p. 41
  27. The Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 2
  28. The Silmarillion
  29. 29.0 29.1 'Morgoth's Ring', "Myths transformed", text VIII'
  30. Morgoth's Ring, "Myths transformed", text X
  31. Author's footnote to the text X
  32. Author's note to text
  33. 33.0 33.1 Morgoth's Ring, "Myths Transformed" - Text X
  34. Unfinished Tales, "The Drúedain"
  35. Morgoth's Ring, "Myths Transformed" - Text IX
  36. J.R.R. Tolkien; Humphrey Carpenter, Christopher Tolkien (eds.), The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 210, (undated, written June 1958)