Have you seen the Warcraft movie? Me neither. I don’t even play World of Warcraft. But I did play Warcraft 2 and 3. And the series as a whole has been concerned mostly about the conflict between humans and orcs. But what are orcs? In this series, they’re green. In Tolkien, they’re different. The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy had them as black. The Hobbit trilogy had them as white, even with the same director. Other series have borrowed from the concept of orcs and have their own versions. So let’s try to define orcs, inasmuch as possible.
Origin of Orcs
Orcs were created by Tolkien as an alternative name to goblins. They share linguistic roots with the word Ogre. Orcus was latin for the underworld and then came to mean demon. So while Tolkien created what we know as orcs, they have been floating around in our mythology for a long time, just under different names. Some works even have them at the side of smaller goblins and larger ogres and trolls. But Tolkien unwittingly solidified them into their own separate race, since the Uruk’hai did not appear like the goblins of Myth.
Role of Traditional Orcs
In the majority of traditional works using orcs or other creatures of a similar vein, they fulfill the trope of Dark Lord’s armies. Basically, they are the faceless, evil, stupid, or all three. And while they might be physically intimidating, their only real strength is in numbers. If not threatening, then they are at least comic relief.. They are nothing more than an obstacle. And not even the main obstacle. They are the underlings of the true antagonist, like Sauron. They have no culture, no morals, no worth.
These orcs are that way so that the protagonists can have enemies they can kill without remorse. If Gimli and Legolas had to kill humans instead of orcs, they wouldn’t be boasting about how many they killed. Seeing your enemy as human makes them appear less like your enemy. That is why leaders go to such lengths to portray enemies as subhuman, as ‘Others.’ And attempts to make your own army more frightening by deemphasizing their humanity just backfires. See Stormtroopers, the orcs of a galaxy far, far away.
With these orcs, the hero is shown as awesome for defeating them, without the moral stains of spilling blood. Because orc blood is green goo. It’s not a sin to slay them.
Role of Revisionist Orcs
Modern revisionist orcs have taken on a different tone. Where in the first few Warcraft games, they resembled Tolkien orcs in purpose, by Warcraft 3 they were given culture and turned into another trope: the noble savage. They are a mishmash of different tribal cultures, not less intelligent than humans but not as advanced technologically as the humans they fight against. The conflict is more a conflict of cultures than good versus evil, and they are sometimes even portrayed as more righteous than humans, especially when it comes to ecological concerns. They are more connected to the earth. In essence, they are more green than humans, in every sense of the word.
As a side note, I’ve never liked the Noble Savage trope. It always seemed too patronizing and simplified. Native Americans, for example, were just as complex as the Europeans that invaded their lands, having both good and bad things about them. They may have respected the earth a bit more, but that would have probably changed if they had discovered metal forging on their own. They were humans, just like everyone else.
Biology of Orcs
Generally portrayed as humanity’s enemy, they may be humanized or monsturized, but they are not human. Or are they? That depends.
First of all, are orcs mammals? Most accounts point to the answer being yes. We generally don’t see them laying eggs. They often have hair. When there are females, they are shown with breasts. Seems like mammals to me.
The only thing against them being mammals is the color of their skin, when it is green (which probably only exists because people painted their Warhammer orc models green to distinguish them from other armies). That makes them look more reptilian, since there is no mammal we know of that has green skin or hair. But everything else points to them being mammals. See the video below as to why it’s hard to have green skin as a mammal, but not necessarily impossible:
Aside from their coloring, the biggest difference between orcs and humans are their faces. Orcs generally have upturned noses and sometimes tusks. What does that remind you of? Pigs. Warthogs. The Welsh word for pig is Orc. Orc rhymes with pork. The thing that seems to unite all versions is this: they’re pig men (as if men weren’t already pigs). Just like it’s hard to create something completely original, so people have just been combining animals and humans to create their monsters, orcs are basically human pig hybrids. Pigs are disgusting. Orcs are meant to be disgusting, so you don’t feel sympathy for them.
So orcs don’t appear to be human, but some sort of distant cousin to them, not only because they are portrayed as a hybrid, but because they can often interbreed with humans. Any two species that can interbreed can’t be too far apart. Maybe they are green neanderthals.
The Warcraft orcs are bigger than humans, wielding massive weapons. It’s interesting that they are built so blocky (because of the original overhead view on the computer screen) as they would need to be more blocky to survive at that size. Even at 7 feet tall, with their bulk, they would weigh several hundred pounds, looking more like gorillas than humans. Could something that big survive? Maybe. They would have to eat a lot to sustain that weight, which would be hard as carnivores. But it would make them a lot more powerful than a human. So powerful any fight between them would be unfair. Yet for some reason the human hero always wins.
So were do they go from here? Will they no longer be used as much, because audiences no longer want such simple enemies? Will the noble orcs be replaced by human noble savages? Is there a new branch of storytelling for them to follow, something different than what came before? Will they ever get a chance to be taken seriously, as a real threat to humanity in and of themselves, and not guided by a dark lord? I think that if they do continue on, it will be in a reinvented form that rejects the two mentioned above. Maybe they will be truly alien instead of pig men. There’s the potential for more, or the potential for them to disappear. Only time will tell.