I found this extremely insightful post on Facebook, but, since it cannot be accessed without an account, I’ve copied below the text.
In Finland during last few days there has been an unprecedented amount of discussion in the media on Orcs and their place in modern gaming. The decision of Wizards of the Coast to revamp their rules for Orcs and allow them to represent any alignment in D&D has caused a surprisingly high level discussion on Orcs, their place in history and should fictional species change with the times. Even leaders of major parties have gotten involved, proving once again that the year 2020 will not run out of surprises.
Since I did plenty of work on Warhammer Orcs when writing the 6th edition, I thought I’d jot down a few lines about Orcs from the point of view of someone whose job entails creating imaginary species with their own cultures, creed and ethics.
To begin with, I start with what I always start with: some history. To delve into the origins of Orcs, we have to go back to the creator of the “modern” Orcs, J. R. R. Tolkien.
Tolkien casts an immensely long shadow over the fantasy genre. Some famous fantasy authors, such as China Mievelle, rage against the Professor, others, such as Terry Pratchett simply acknowledge the debt (Pratchett famously quipped that “We all stand on mt. Tolkien”). But what is certain is that none who work in the fantasy genre can escape Tolkien’s influence. Even beyond the realms of fiction, “The Lord of the Rings” has been voted as the most important and influential book of the 20th century in multiple polls. Tolkien matters, even to those who profess that he does not.
In many ways, Tolkien was supremely well-equipped for his task: Indeed, his unique set of experiences, skills and talents are so formidable that no author in the genre has been able to call upon such a set of tools: as a veteran of the terrible slaughter that was the First World War (where Tolkien lost virtually all of his close friends) he understood the awful nature of the war and harboured no romantic illusions about it -his battle scenes are rich in narrative and low on blood and guts. As a philologist, he was able to create writing systems and languages for his imaginary nations and their peoples -and as we know from history, language is the cornerstone of a culture. With his deep and profoundly devout Catholicism, Tolkien was able to call upon clear distinction between good and evil. His faith in the goodness of God allowed him to anchor the ethics in his world solidly on the point that the edicts which come from Eru are good, and opposing Him is evil. He was also a scholar of mythology of truly immense depth and understanding -his academic work on the place of monsters in myths and legends is a classic. When you marry all this to his talent as a writer, and have a set of skills that no other author has come close to matching. Whether individual likes his works or not is besides the point -history has proven that his impact and success have no parallel in the history of literature.
But even for Tolkien’s formidable skill set, Orcs were a uniquely difficult challenge. Creating these sentient war slaves of Morgoth was a huge sea change for the entire fantasy genre, and as everyone who works on fiction knows, creating a thinking humanoid race comes with gigantic challenges and perils.
For his fantasy mythology, which he created as a national epic for England (he felt that this was missing, and the stories of King Arthur were located in the British Isles but were not really “English” in his opinion) Tolkien needed armed forces to fight for the Dark Lords of his imaginary worlds. Hordes of enemies that could be fought and destroyed without moral dilemmas that killing humans entails. Enter the Orcs: violent, depraved, hideous race of warriors bred in darkness to serve corrupt powers. But this presented a daunting challenge to Tolkien: as a devout catholic, he could not grant the fallen angels of his story, Morgoth and Sauron, the ability to create anything, only to warp and destroy what already existed. Thus, as was written in Silmarillion, the Orcs were created from the noble elves (not humans!), through sorcery. Now he had his race of evil, twisted servants of the Evil Powers.
But this led Tolkien into another moral dilemma: as Orcs were now part of the creation of Eru (Tolkien’s version of the Christian God) they could not be irredeemable -God reigns supreme, after all, and all His creations would in the end be part of his great and powerful plan. But if this was true and the Orcs were sentient, incarnate, created beings, could they be killed without any moral compunctions?
Tolkien went through a lot of creative angst and agony over this, even considering that Orcs might have been created from slime and mud instead of being true thinking beings, but he quickly abandoned this. It was, after all, against his own convictions that thinking, feeling beings could be condemned to damnation at birth, no matter what the circumstances. In the end, in his letters on Orcs he decided that Orcs could be redeemed were they ever seek redemption and escape from corruption. If an Orc pleaded for mercy or peace Tolkien wrote that they should be spared no matter the cost, but not one of the Orcs ever did ask or give quarter.
The criticism of Orcs arose from their physical description, and their society. In the 60s, Lord of the Rings was condemned by the academia for presenting Orcs and Sauron as the proletariat and modern technology -a line of attack that has not aged well at all. Today, Tolkien’s description of the physical characteristics of the Orcs and their seeming innate evil has caused calls of them reflecting colonial caricatures of Africans and other ethnicities. For my money, I see Tolkien as remarkably enlightened man for his time and of his background. He condemned colonialism, Apartheid and racial doctrines as wholly unscientific, and fiercely defended Jews against Nazi doctrines -all at the time when most of the academia was still actively engaged in measuring skulls to determine the worth of human “races”. However, he was also a captive of his era, and which shows in the language used to describe the Orcs.
It is worth noting that to Tolkien Orcs were not only a handy storytelling device but also a way to show the results of a spiritual corruption on a sentient person. It is notable that the only time Tolkien compared Orcs to real people was when he noted that in the Second World War there were “Uruk-hai on the both sides” and that he called his own english countrymen “orcs” when they cheered the bombing of the civilians in Dresden. To Tolkien, the hideousness of the physical form of the Orcs simply symbolised the evil within.
Fast forward a few decades, and we come to Warhammer Orcs. The problem we as game and fantasy fiction creators faced was essentially the same as Tolkien; how to create warrior-people that you would always fight with (Warhammer being a battle game and all) without the moral dilemma of creating a race that was inherently evil. Wisely, Warhammer settled on a path that I think is close to ideal. It is very much thanks to the pioneering work of Tolkien that Orc cultures and descriptions that followed were able to take a different track: in Warhammer games over the years the Orcs (and their 40K counterparts the Orks) became greenskinned fungoids that multiplied via spores, and had all the morals and ethics of a tidal wave: what constitutes a good life to a Warhammer Orc is war, battle, combat and more battle. Where Tolkien’s Orcs are tortured and loath themselves, Warhammer Orcs are supremely happy and content, knowing their place in the universe: namely Bashin’ in da 'eads! To further remove any overarching ethnic indicators, the mannerisms and language used by the greenskins was lifted from the English football hooligans. And yes, partly this all was done to differentiate Warhammer Orcs from those found in Middle-Earth, once again showing the enormous influence Tolkien still wields over the entire creative industry worldwide.
D&D on the other hand, due to the nature of the game, its historical baggage and the 9-angle morality system the Orcs were condemned by the official rules as Chaotic Evil by default. A few days back, WotC declared that in the future rules revisions Orcs could present any alignment whenever Campaign so required.
I welcome the changes in D&D: one can still have the savage hordes threatening the human cultures, but now the DM or the players can create that one rebel who is noble and good at heart, no doubt causing a great scandal in their own society. And most importantly, better, richer games.
Whenever something changes, it is good to look back into the annals of history to see how we got here.