The Origin of Orcs

The published "Silmarillion"   
The History   
The Fall of Gondolin   
The Quenta   
Earliest Annals of Beleriand   
The Fall of N˙menor   
Later Annals of Valinor   
Quenta Silmarillion   
The Annals of Aman   
Myths transformed   
Quendi and Eldar   
Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings   
Annotations and Comments   

The published "Silmarillion"    

In the first mention of Orcs in the Quenta Silmarillion of the published Silmarillion, the Origin of Orcs is explained:

Yet this is held true by the wise of EressŰa, that all those of the Quendi 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. For the Orcs had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Il˙vatar; and naught that had life of its own, nor the semblance of life, could ever Melkor make since his rebellion in the AinulindalŰ before the Beginning: so say the wise."
The Silmarillion

But throughout the history of his Legendarium - and even long after The Lord of the Rings had been published - Tolkien took several approaches to this issue, of which I shall try to give an overview here.

The History    

The Fall of Gondolin    

In "The Fall of Gondolin", one of the earliest written tales in The Book of Lost Tales 2 (HoMeII) - where the names Orcs and Goblins are alternatively used - the "origin" of Orcs (there described as "Melko's goblins") is very different. They were bred by Melko of the subterranean heats and slime, although already there the idea appears, that some of them were Noldoli (=Noldor), twisted to the evil of Melko and mingled among these Orcs:

How it came ever that among Men the Noldoli have been confused with the Orcs who are Melko's goblins, I know not, unless it be that certain of the Noldoli were twisted to the evil of Melko and mingled among these Orcs, for all that race were 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 - "The Fall of Gondolin"

The Quenta    

In the "The Quenta" (HoMeIV) (abbrev.: Q) (which followed the earliest drafts called "The Earliest Silmarillion - The Sketch of a Mythology" and probably was written for the better part in 1930) (abbrev.: S) the origin of Orcs is slightly different and so is the timing (their making happened already before the awakening of the Quendi):

The hordes of the Orcs he made of stone, but their hearts of hatred. Glamhoth, people of hate, the Gnomes have called them. Goblins may they be called, but in ancient days they were strong and cruel and fell.

Earliest Annals of Beleriand    

In the opening section of the "Earliest Annals of Beleriand" (ibid.) this theory seemed already omitted:

Morgoth flees from Valinor with the Silmarils, the magic gems of Feanor, and returns into the Northern World and rebuilds his fortress of Angband beneath the Black Mountain, Thangorodrim. He devises the Balrogs and the Orcs. The Silmarils are set in Morgoth's iron crown.

And in the Annotations an attempt for an explanation about the different dating of the first appearance of Orc in the "Annals of Valinor" (abbrev.: AV) and the "Annals of Beleriand" (abbrev.: AB) is given:

There is here the remarkable statement that Morgoth 'devises the Balrogs and the Orcs', implying that it was only now that they came into being. In Q ($2), following S, they originated (if the Balrogs were not already in existence) in the ancient darkness after the overthrow of the Lamps, and when Morgoth returned to Angband 'countless became the number of the hosts of his Orcs and demons' ($4); similarly in AV (p. 315) he 'bred and gathered once more his evil servants, Orcs and Balrogs'. A note written against the passage in Q $4 directs, however, that the making of the Orcs should be brought in here rather than earlier (note 8): and in the version of 'The Silmarillion' that followed Q (later than these Annals) this was in fact done: when Morgoth returned,

countless became the hosts of his beasts and demons; and he brought into being the race of the Orcs, and they grew and multiplied in the bowels of the earth.

(The subsequent elaboration of the origin of the Orcs is extremely complex and cannot be entered into here.) It is clear, therefore, that these words in AB I, despite the fact of its being evidently earlier than AV, look forward to the later idea (itself impermanent) that the Orcs were not made until after Morgoth's return from Valinor.

According to AV Morgoth escaped in the course of the Valian Years 2990 - 1; some century and a half of later time elapsed, then, between the first making of the Orcs and the beginning of their raids, referred to under the first of the annals dated 50.

The Fall of N˙menor    

Probably written in 1936, there is IMO a noticeable change in the concept, the idea that has first appeared in the earliest "The Fall of Gondolin" is taken up again. Here Orcs are separated from the other demons and dragons and monsters and now only - as a "mockery" - related to the "Children of Il˙vatar". In "The Fall of N˙menor" (in HoMeV) he states:

And Men were troubled by many evil things that Morgoth had made in the days of his dominion: demons and dragons and monsters, and Orcs, that are mockeries of the creatures of Iluvatar; and their lot was unhappy.

Later Annals of Valinor    

In another chapter, the "Later Annals of Valinor" an attempt to resolve the discrepancy of the timing is made:

Morgoth was hunted by the Valar, but he escaped into the North of Middle-earth, and re-established there his strong places, and bred and gathered once more his evil servants, Orcs and Balrogs.

Quenta Silmarillion    

In the "Quenta Silmarillion" as suggested for publication in 1937 are two entries concerning the Origin of Orcs:

But in that time Morgoth made many monsters of divers kinds and shapes that long troubled the world; yet the Orcs were not made until he had looked upon the Elves, and he made them in mockery of the Children of Iluvatar.
There countless became the hosts of his beasts and demons; and he brought into being the race of the Orcs, and they grew and multiplied in the bowels of the earth. These Orcs Morgoth made in envy and mockery of the Elves, and they were made of stone, but their hearts of hatred. Glamhoth, the hosts of hate, the Gnomes have called them. Goblins they may be called, but in ancient days they were strong and fell.

Here the earliest theory - Orcs made of Stone - appears again, and it seems not quite clear whether this happend purposely or accidently.

The Annals of Aman    

In "The Annals of Aman" (abbrev.: AAm)(HoMeX, probably written 1958) the text of the quotation of the top of this page appears for the first time (exactly as in the published Silmarillion) and the last quotation above reads there:

ž127 There countless became the hosts of his beasts and his demons; and thence there now came forth in hosts beyond count the fell race of the Orkor, that had grown and multiplied in the bowels of the earth like a plague. These creatures Morgoth bred in envy and mockery of the Eldar. In form they were like unto the Children of Iluvatar, yet foul to look upon; for they were bred in hatred, and with hatred they were filled; and he loathed the things that he had wrought, and with loathing they served him. Their voices were as the clashing of stones, and they laughed not save only at torment and cruel deeds. The Glamhoth, host of tumult, the Noldor called them. (Orcs we may name them; for in days of old they were strong and fell as demons. Yet they were not of demon kind, but children of earth corrupted by Morgoth, and they could be slain or destroyed by the valiant with weapons of war. {But indeed a darker tale some yet tell in EressŰa, saying that the Orcs were verily in their beginning of the Quendi themselves, a kindred of the Avari unhappy whom Morgoth cozened, and then made captive, and so enslaved them, and so brought them utterly to ruin. For, saith Pengolod, Melkor could never since the AinulindalŰ' make of his own aught that had life or the semblance of life, and still less might he do so after his treachery in Valinor and the fullness of his own corruption.}

but even more interesting is Christopher's Annotation to this paragraph:

The origin of the Orcs. In QS the idea had already arisen that the Orcs originated in mockery of the Elves, but not yet that the Orcs were in any other way associated with them: they were a 'creation' of Morgoth's own, 'made of stone', and he brought them into being when he returned to Middle-earth. As AAm was first written this view still held; the word 'made' was still used - though not the words 'made of stone'. But in Ălfwine's note that follows (and which was written continuously with what precedes) they are called 'a spawn of earth corrupted by Morgoth'; and the 'darker tale' told in Eressea - that the Orcs were in their beginning enslaved and corrupted Elves (Avari) - is certainly the first appearance of this idea, contradicting what precedes, or perhaps rather at this stage presenting an alternative theory. It is ascribed to Pengolo­; and Pengolo­ argues to Ălfwine that Melkor could actually make nothing that had life, but could only corrupt what was already living. The implication of this second theory would probably, though not necessarily, be that the Orcs came into being much earlier, before the Captivity of Melkor; and that this implication is present is suggested by the footnote reference to the Annals of Beleriand - meaning the last version of these Annals, the Grey Annals, companion to the Annals of Aman: 'it is said that this he did in the Dark ere ever the Quendi were found by Orome.' At this point my father went back to an earlier part of AAm and interpolated the passage 'Yet by after- knowledge ...', where the idea of the capture of wandering Quendi in their earliest days is filled out, though it remains only a supposition of the 'masters of lore'. Perhaps at the same time he emended the present passage, changing 'he brought now into being' to 'thence there now came forth in hosts beyond count', 'made' to 'bred', and 'a spawn of earth' to 'children of earth'. He then (as I conjecture) developed the interpolation at the earlier point much more fully, where the idea becomes less a supposition than a certainty of history: the powerlessness of Melkor to make living things is a known fact ('so say the wise'). Finally, at a later time , he cut out the whole passage at the end of ž127 beginning 'But indeed a darker tale some yet tell in Eressea ...' - either because he only then observed that it had been superseded by žž43 - 5 and was in any case not in the appropriate place, or because he rejected this theory of the origin of the Orcs. See further p. 127, ž127. The word for in 'Orcs we may name them; for in days of old they were strong and fell as demons. Yet they were not of demon kind' (an observation of Ălfwine's) suggests that Orcs is Old English (cf. orc-neas in Beowulf line 112), conveniently similar to the Elvish word. This would explain why Ălfwine said, in effect, 'We may call them Orcs, because they were strong and fell as demons, even though they were not in fact demons.' In a letter of my father's written on 25 April 1954 (Letters no.144) he said that the word Orc 'is as far as I am concerned actually derived from Old English orc "demon", but only because of its phonetic suitability' (and also: 'Orcs... are nowhere clearly stated to be of any particular origin. But since they are servants of the Dark Power, and later of Sauron, neither of whom could, or would, produce living things, they must be "corruptions"').

But it seems Tolkien soon changed his mind again, for he scribbled a note on the typescript to this paragraph that said

'Alter this. Orcs are not Elvish'

Myths transformed    

"Myths transformed", another chapter of HoMeX, contains "later" writings (written probably in the late 1950s) of the Prof., presented as "Essays" (Christopher Tolkien refers to them as a form of "...thinking with the pen", on various topics. One of those named Notes on motives in the Silmarillion contains a significant change of the statement about the breeding of the Orcs:

Though as for Orcs, the Eldar believed Morgoth had actually 'bred' them by capturing Men (and Elves) early and increasing to the utmost any corrupt tendencies they possessed.

An essay about Orcs which probably is an attempt to define the framesets in which the origin of Orcs must be seen and points out the existing problems (though this quotation is rather lengthy, I did not dare to shorten it lest its meaning gets not changed in any way:


Their nature and origin require more thought. They are not easy to work into the theory and system.

(1). As the case of Aule and the Dwarves shows, only Eru could make creatures with independent wills, and with reasoning powers. But Orcs seem to have both: they can try to cheat Morgoth / Sauron, rebel against him, or criticize him.

(2). ? Therefore they must be corruptions of something pre-existing.

(3). But Men had not yet appeared, when the Orcs already existed. AulŰ constructed the Dwarves out of his memory of the Music; but Eru would not sanction the work of Melkor so as to allow the independence of the Orcs. (Not unless Orcs were ultimately remediable, or could be amended and 'saved'?)

It also seems clear (see 'Finrod and Andreth') that though Melkor could utterly corrupt and ruin individuals, it is not possible to contemplate his absolute perversion of a whole people, or group of peoples, and his making that state heritable. [Added later: This latter must (if a fact) be an act of Eru.]

In that case Elves, as a source, are very unlikely. And are Orcs 'immortal', in the Elvish sense? Or trolls? It seems clearly implied in The Lord of the Rings that trolls existed in their own right, but were 'tinkered' with by Melkor.

(4). What of talking beasts and birds with reasoning and speech? These have been rather lightly adopted from less 'serious' mythologies, but play a part which cannot now be excised. They are certainly 'exceptions' and not much used, but sufficiently to show they are a recognized feature of the world. All other creatures accept them as natural if not common.

But true 'rational' creatures, 'speaking peoples', are all of human / 'humanoid' form. Only the Valar and Maiar are intelligences that can assume forms of Arda at will. Huan and Sorontar could be Maiar - emissaries of ManwŰ. But unfortunately in The Lord of the Rings Gwaehir and Landroval are said to be descendants of Sorontar.

In any case is it likely or possible that even the least of the Maiar would become Orcs? Yes: both outside Arda and in it, before the fall of Utumno. Melkor had corrupted many spirits - some great, as Sauron, or less so, as Balrogs. The least could have been primitive (and much more powerful and perilous) Orcs; but by practising when embodied procreation they would (cf. Melian) [become] more and more earthbound, unable to return to spirit-state (even demon-form), until released by death (killing), and they would dwindle in force. When released they would, of course, like Sauron, be 'damned': i.e. reduced to impotence, infinitely recessive: still hating but unable more and more to make it effective physically (or would not a very dwindled dead Orc-state be a poltergeist?).

But again - would Eru provide fŰar for such creatures? For the Eagles etc. perhaps. But not for Orcs.

It does however seem best to view Melkor's corrupting power as always starting, at least, in the moral or theological level. Any creature that took him for Lord (and especially those who blasphemously called him Father or Creator) became soon corrupted in all parts of its being, the fŰa dragging down the hr÷a in its descent into Morgothism: hate and destruction. As for Elves being 'immortal': they in fact only had enormously long lives, and were themselves physically 'wearing out', and suffering a slow progressive weakening of their bodies.

In summary: I think it must be assumed that 'talking' is not necessarily the sign of the possession of a 'rational soul' or fŰa. 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). In The Lord of the Rings Sauron is said to have devised a language for them.

The same sort of thing may be said of H˙an and the Eagles: they were taught language by the Valar, and raised to a higher level - but they still had no fŰar.

But Finrod probably went too far in his assertion that Melkor could not wholly corrupt any work of Eru, or that Eru would (necessarily) interfere to abrogate the corruption, or to end the being of His own creatures because they had been corrupted and fallen into evil.

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.

The text ended there, but the following passage was subsequently added:

See 'Melkor'. It will there be seen that the wills of Orcs and Balrogs etc. are part of Melkor's power 'dispersed'. Their spirit is one of hate. But hate is non-co÷perative (except under direct fear). Hence the rebellions, mutinies, etc. when Morgoth seems far off. Orcs are beasts and Balrogs corrupted Maiar. Also (n.b.) Morgoth not Sauron is the source of Orc-wills. Sauron is just another (if greater) agent. Orcs can rebel against him without losing their own irremediable allegiance to evil (Morgoth). AulŰ wanted love. But of course had no thought of dispersing his power. Only Eru can give love and independence. If a finite sub-creator tries to do this he really wants absolute loving obedience, but it turns into robotic servitude and becomes evil.

This essay provides the reader with a lot of possible origins of Orcs and a wide field for speculations of any sort: Talking beasts, Corrupted Maiar, a strain of Elvish..., mated with beasts and later Men.

In another note (without any indication of date) a new spelling is suggested (but not consistently used throughout the note) and their origin is explained thus:

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.)

The Elves would have classed the creatures called 'trolls' (in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) as Orcs - in character and origin - but they were larger and slower. It would seem evident that they were corruptions of primitive human types.

The last paragraph includes Trolls and specifically the Olog-hai in the general definition of Orcs.

Quendi and Eldar    

Yet another essay, which is part of a major work entitled "Essekenta Eldarinwa" or "Quendi and Eldar" (published mostly in HoMeXI), can be probably dated 1959 or early 1960, seems to represent a summary of Tolkiens view about Orcs at this time. The essay about Orcs (printed in HoMeX) is 8 (closely typed) typescript pages long. The major changes in this essay are, that the central theory now leans towards a "mannish" origin of Orcs:

Those who believe that the Orcs were bred from some kind of Men, captured and perverted by Melkor, assert that it was impossible for the Quendi to have known of Orcs before the Separation and the departure of the Eldar. For though the time of the awakening of Men is not known, even the calculations of the loremasters that place it earliest do not assign it a date long before the Great March (3) began, certainly not long enough before it to allow for the corruption of Men into Orcs. On the other hand, it is plain that soon after his return Morgoth had at his command a great number of these creatures, with whom he ere long began to attack the Elves. There was still less time between his return and these first assaults for the breeding of Orcs and for the transfer of their hosts westward. 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.

though it is mentioned that especially in the elder days some spirits had assumed "Orkish shapes", that Sauron in the ThirdAge "interbred" Orcs and Men producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile. In this essay an "elvish origin of Orcs" is totally omitted, but the problem of the timing of the awakening of the Secondborn still remains noticeable. Christopher comments this essay as follows:

This then, as it may appear, was my father's final view of the question: Orcs were bred from Men, and if 'the conception in mind of the Orcs may go far back into the night of Melkor's thought' it was Sauron who, during the ages of Melkor's captivity in Aman, brought into being the black armies that were available to his Master when he returned.

Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings    

Another interesting note, published in Tolkien's instructions for translators of The Lord of the Rings:

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.
Notes on Nomenclature


...there are Tolkien's latest thoughts, his best thoughts, and his published thoughts and these are not necessarily the same.''
Tolkiens Legendarium

Throughout the development of his mythology Tolkien tried a lot of different explanations about the origin of Orcs, none of which seemed to fully satisfy himself. Thus giving a clear and unambiguous answer like "Orcs derive from Elves" or "Orcs derive from Men" can IMO neither be accurate nor would it do justice to the complexity of the situation. And each singular answer would mean to ignore those problems, that arise with this particular answer in the context of Tolkien's writings as a whole.

For the mythological inspirations for Tolkien's Orcs see also: Mythology/Orcs

Annotations and Comments    
Excellent work, Walter!

My personal conclusion to the Origin of Orcs is to state; that the first Orcs derived from Elves and Minor Maia, who followed Morgoth, then later Men were add in as they came on the scene.

The problem seems to be that when you use a word like breed and, that brings to mind science and genetics(which of course are in most peoples bad books these days).

Magic and Myth do not mix with Science and Genetics. (no matter how evil thay are )

Once you get passed the "Genenome" problem and realize that Elves Men and Orcs can all interbreed, all the emenity on Middle-earth can be explained.

It is like when Jews, Christians, and Moslems realize that they all pray to the same God.


On their first march into Mordor, Samwise asked if Orcs could live on nothing but poison, and Frodo (a student of Elvish history like Bilbo), replied, "The Shadow that bred them cannot make, it can only mock. Not new things that live upon the earth." Orcs must live and eat like other biological creatures.

Boethius vs. Manichaeus 1:0 -- Walter

Then, a couple chapters before, we have either Shagrat or Gorbag reminiscing about "The Great Siege". This has been used to indicate the possibility that Orcs either remember tales better than humans, or that the ones not killed young in battle or arguments are immortal. Like Elves.
An interesting thought. Especially in the light of the "Athrabeth" where - according to Andreth - lesser "sins" have led to Menkind loosing immortality (the "First Fall of Men")... -- Walter


There is an interesting footnote to Tolkien's essay on "The Dr˙edain":

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 Dr˙edain 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 Drűgs each regarded the other as renegades.

"The Dr˙edain", Unfinished Tales


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