Brief Description   
Orcs and Goblins Within Tolkien's Writings   
Further Readings   

Brief Description    

A race of hideous creatures, the most numerous servants of both Morgoth and Sauron. They were thought to be wrought from captured Elves and/or Men by Morgoth when Middle-earth was still dark.

The Sindarin name of these creatures is Orch (pl. Yrch) and the Quenya name is Orco. The Dwarves called them Rakhas and the Woses Gorgűn.

See also: The Origin of Orcs, Mythology/Orcs, Uruk-hai

Orcs and Goblins Within Tolkien's Writings    

In Tolkien's writings the earliest form of the "creatures" which lateron became Orcs, were the Úvanimor, only briefly described as monsters, giants, and ogres. They already appear in Tolkien's earliest tales (cf. HoMeI) where Christopher Tolkien notes:

At this point in the story the agents of Melko appear, the Úvanimor, 'bred in the earth' by him (Úvanimor, 'who are monsters, giants, and ogres', have been mentioned in an earlier tale, pp. 75-6); and Túvo protected Men and Elves from them and from 'evil fays'. A makes mention of Orcs besides.
HoMeI; "Gilfanon’s Tale: The Travail of the Noldoli"

Throughout the earliest tales, the names goblins and Orcs are frequently used as synonymes (i.e. "It is Melko's goblins, the Orcs of the hills.") but sometimes apparently distinguished (i.e. the wandering bands of the goblins and the Orcs). In the appendix "Names in the Lost Tales - Part I" (HoMeI) we find:

Orc: QL ork (orq-) "monster, demon". GL orc "goblin", plural orcin, orchoth...

The Orcs there are "...bred by Melko of the subterranean heats and slime. Their hearts were of granite and their bodies deformed; foul their faces which smiled not, but their laugh that of the clash of metal, and to nothing were they more fain than to aid in the basest of the purposes of Melko." (HoMeII p.159)

But in his first published story, The Hobbit Tolkien uses mostly goblins instead of Orcs. In his explanations preceding the first chapter Tolkien writes:

(2) Orc is not an English word. It occurs in one or two places but is usually translated goblin (or hobgoblin for the larger kinds). Orc is the hobbit's form of the name given at that time to these creatures, and it is not connected at all with our orc, ork, applied to sea-animals of dolphin-kind.
The Hobbit, p.1

In The Lord of the Rings goblins is seldom used anymore. In the "Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings" we find:

Orc. This is supposed to be the Common Speech name of these creatures at that time; it should therefore according to the system be translated into English, or the language of translation. It was translated 'goblin' in The Hobbit, except in one place; but this word, and other words of similar sense in other European languages (as far as I know), are not really suitable. The orc in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, though of course partly made out of traditional features, is not really comparable in supposed origin, functions, and relation to the Elves. In any case orc seemed to me, and seems, in sound a good name for these creatures. It should be retained. It should be spelt ork (so the Dutch translation) in a Germanic language, but I had used the spelling orc in so many places that I have hesitated to change it in the English text, though the adjective is necessarily spelt orkish. The Grey-elven form is orch, plural yrch.

I originally took the word from Old English orc [Beowulf 112 orc-nēas and the gloss orc-ţyrs ('ogre'), heldēofol ('hell-devil')]. This is supposed not to be connected with modern English orc, ork, a name applied to various sea-beasts of the dolphin order.

Notes on Nomenclature

In The Silmarillion and other - post-LotR - writings of Tolkien, goblins are no longer mentioned...


Etymological explanations and background on the Elvish names for Orcs can be found in Appendix C of "Quendi and Eldar" (in HoMeXI, p.389-91), here Tolkien also explains the original meaning:

In the lore of the Blessed Realm the Q urko naturally seldom occurs, except in tales of the ancient days and the March, and then is vague in meaning, referring to anything that caused fear to the Elves, any dubious shape or shadow, or prowling creature. In Sindarin urug has a similar use. It might indeed be translated 'bogey'.
HoMeXI - Quendi and Eldar - App. C

Interesting also the author's note at the end of this Appendix:

Note. The word used in translation of Q urko, S orch, is Orc. But that is because of the similarity of the ancient English word orc, 'evil spirit or bogey', to the Elvish words. There is possibly no connexion between them. The English word is now generally supposed to be derived from Latin Orcus (the Roman underworld (similar to Greek Hades -- ChW).


According to Humphrey Carpenter's Tolkien-biography in Tolkien's youth - at Sarehole - young Ronald and his brother Hilary had called the miller at Sarehole Mill the "White Ogre" and a farmer who once had chased Ronald for picking mushrooms the "Black Ogre".

There Carpenter also mentions that at this time Tolkien was very pleased by George MacDonalds? Curdie books (c.f TolkiensSources), which are set in a remote kingdom where misshapen and malevolent goblins lurked beneath the mountains.

For the mythological background of Orcs see also: Mythology/Orcs

Further Readings    

  • An essay by Michael Martinez on Suite101 [1]


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