I have a new book called The Elven Comedienne. This past week I completed a second draft. The book takes place in the modern United States, with the exception that the United States is populated by the traditional intelligent fantasy races: humans, elves, dwarves and orcs. The inclusion of orcs creates a problem for me.
Orcs were invented by J.R.R. Tolkien for the Lord of the Rings. They are ugly, filthy, cannibalistic, irredeemably evil, and some were—in contrast to the lily white shades of the other intelligent races in his epic—dark skinned.
It doesn’t take all that much imagination to guess who were, to Tolkien, the real world’s analogues to orcs. They were the hordes of non-European races, particularly Africans. To say that their origin is racist is, I hope, self-evident.
One of the interesting things about researching Tolkien is how far people will bend over to defend him. This article will tell you that Tolkien didn’t invent orcs—that orcs were “influenced” by an earlier writer’s goblins, which is kind of like saying Apple didn’t invent the iPhone because there were smartphones before it. This article suggests that the inclusion of an irredeemably evil beast-like dark-skinned fantasy race wasn’t racist because “Orcs however, are not men.” This is the actual problem here—Tolkien’s construction puts their real world analogues as sub-human. I can’t think of anything else I’ve ever read where the topic sentence of a summarizing paragraph more perfectly proves the exact opposite point of the author’s intention.
This has always been the discomforting aspect of orcs in fantasy. They are the “other” race, the immediate set of antagonists, the irredeemably evil creatures that must be repelled and defeated. To the casual observer, the one who isn’t willing to bend over backwards or search for signs that aren’t clear, orcs represent the non-white races of the world. People trip all over themselves to avoid this construction (and, perhaps Tolkien didn’t mean it this way), for the very reason they are uncomfortable with it in the first place. They don’t want their entire genre tainted by the stain of racism in its origin.
But it is. Whether we want to admit it or not, the races in Lord of the Rings had analogues in the real world. The analogue for orcs is a particularly offensive one.
This is a problem for anyone who wants to include orcs in their fantasy works. Trying to ignore their racist origin inevitably leads to embarrassing “unintentionally” racist themes emerging (Hi Blizzard Entertainment). Embracing it would seem to legitimize the racism in their origin. Omitting orcs creates a vacuum in which white cultures have representation while African cultures do not. It’s not an easy problem.
I’ve chosen to embrace the origin in The Elven Comedienne. Orcs in The Elven Comedienne represent the traditionally oppressed races in the real world: the people of the various darker skinned cultures that Donald Trump wants to deport. It makes me a little uneasy, because I know I have to be careful with it. But I’m going to try.
There is an unavoidable problem with this approach. One of the major races in The Elven Comedienne is humans, and, along the lines of most Anglo fantasy, humans can be seen to represent Anglo-Saxon people. This construction presents orcs as something other than human, and could be seen to deny who they represent in the real world their humanity.
I consider this problem unavoidable. Orcs are not humans, and the common impression of orcs is that they represent non-white humans in the real world. (Putting black humans in the story does not strike me as a realistic alternative, given the strong association between fantasy humans and real world Anglo humans.) Against that, though, dwarves are not humans, and elves are not humans, and people don’t seem to have the same sort of problem with the inclusion of those races.
It’s fair to say that racism is a major topic in modern discourse. What I hope for is that the inclusion of orcs in The Elven Comedienne does is give me a framework to talk about racism in general. Jana, the narrator of the story, is subconsciously racist. Jared, the antagonist of the story, is less subconsciously so. Traxy, as a forest elf, is not particularly shy about pointing out Jana’s subconscious racism.
A further step is the depiction of orcs in general. Unlike Tolkien’s orcs, they are not irredeemably evil (or, for that matter, evil at all). They are not stupid. They have suffered from discrimination, but they are, in my book, treated as equals under the law to humans, dwarves, and elves. The most developed orc character is cunning, fierce, and arguably Jana’s strongest adversary. Other orcs in the story have a different range of jobs. There’s nothing in my story, I hope, that indicates that orcs in general should be given less respect or admiration than humans, dwarves, or elves.
The safe choice would have been to create a world without orcs. I also think that would be a cowardly choice. I worry that I might make some mistakes, but I do hope that people will give me the benefit of the doubt. I want to redeem orcs, not in the sense of disconnecting them from how they are traditionally seen in fantasy, but in the sense of treating them in all ways as equals to the other major fantasy races. I may not be entirely successful, but I will try.