An Orc is an Orc, Of Course, Of Course

(heading sung to the title tune of Mr. Ed)

So, Orcs.  They’re ubiquitous.  Tolkien’s Orcs are, by far, the most famous, and yet they are by no means alone.  The popular Warhammer franchise includes an Orc nation, which means they appear in books, video games, comics, and tabletop games.  The massive MMORPG World of Warcraft has an entire playable race of characters who are Orcs.

Universally, orcs are large, brutish characters who rely on brute strength and absolute ferocity in warfare.  Green skinned and fanged, they’re the kind of creature who would rip off their own arm then beat you to death with it.  Right?

Well… kinda.

Tolkien is the originator of the modern orc.  Even so, his Orcs (he always capitalized it) evolved over time.  In The Hobbit, Tolkien actually uses the terms ‘goblin’ and ‘orc’ interchangeably.  Those that resided in the Misty Mountains were called goblins, and those elsewhere were Orcs, though their descriptions are pretty much the same.  But, where did Tolkien come up with them?  Did he draw on earlier mythologic roots, such as with the elves, or are they his own original creations?

In the epic poem Beowulf, there appears the word ‘orcne’.  Orcus possibly meant ‘from the underworld’, while the –ne addition was used to denote a corpse.  Combining them yields a corpse from the underworld – a prototypical zombie, if you will.  It’s only used once, though there are two instances of ‘orc’ being used.  Both of those usages refers to a chalice.  (“I shall slay the dreaded orc, by pouring its alcoholic contents into my belly – repeatedly!)  There are several references in Old English to orcs as vessels, or pots, and seems to be a corruption of the Latin urceus, meaning ‘jug’ or orca, meaning ‘pitcher’.

There was an Old English term for giant or ogre, þyrs. In his letters, Tolkien incorrectly associated that term (I’m not going to use it again – that beginning letter makes my head hurt) with orc.  It wasn’t necessarily his fault – several Old English dictionaries of the late 1850s had the terms as Old English equivalents.

A scant few texts from the 17th century use variations of orc (orque, ork, orco) to describe monsters derived from a succubus.  A couple of other fictional works from the 1860s also used the term ‘orc’ but without really defining it.  Tolkien, who was born in the waning years of the 19th century, might have been exposed to these works at some point in his life.  But, in his letters he mentions the Old English orc as his inspiration, and even specifically mentions the ‘orc’ from the original Beowulf.

So, could Tolkien have mistakenly named his creatures after a chalice made of precious metals?

Well… it’s definitely possible.