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Tolkien reference needed


Jan 8 2011, 5:28am

Post #1 of 17 (1566 views)
Tolkien reference needed Can't Post

Does anyone know where this Tolkien quote is from – if it is indeed an actual quote?

"We were all Orcs in the Great War."

I've run across it on all the major sites (including Wikipedia) that give definitions of orcs, but the only reference given is "citation needed" which of course, is no reference at all. I was under the impression that it was from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, but it's not there. I checked the index under "orcs used figuratively," and there are quotes on pages 64, 78, 82, 111, and 246 – comparing humans to orcs – but none of them are the quote in question.

It certainly sounds like a quote from one of his letters. Does anyone know – if it's indeed a legitimate quote – where it's from?


Jan 8 2011, 12:00pm

Post #2 of 17 (1406 views)
I'm extremely suspicious. [In reply to] Can't Post

I don't ever recall seeing that quote before, and all the references I can Google seem to originate with the Wikipedia article. And since when has anyone had trouble finding a citation for something written by Tolkien? The only other place in that Wikipedia article where it says "citation needed" was just a little bit higher in the article, after a block quote, and I had no trouble finding a citation to Letter 153.

I think it is incorrect, although it is plausible enough that I can see why it has survived. It sounds like something Tolkien might have said in his Forward to the Second Edition of LotR or his letters or perhaps in a random note in HoME -- but I think if he had said it, we could find a citation.

So what to do about it? Someone challenged it by adding "citation needed." There is probably more that could be done, but I'm not inclined to figure out how to edit Wikipedia articles right now.

By the way, what do you mean by "all the major sites"? What sites other than Wikipedia? I have not run across it in all of what I would consider major Tolkien sites. And when I did find it, often it was because someone had copied from the Wikipedia article. For example, I searched this site and found it only in your post.

(This post was edited by Curious on Jan 8 2011, 12:08pm)


Jan 8 2011, 2:49pm

Post #3 of 17 (1357 views)
I've never seen that quote before [In reply to] Can't Post

It seems suspiciously up-to-date in its targeted appeal to our own generation's thinking about that war.

As you know from your research in the Letters, during the Second World War Tolkien didn't hesitate to identify the totalitarian war societies of both the Allies and the Axis as having orcish qualities (Letters 66, 71, 96), although he generally connected the image to broader ideas of class and modernity in general. He admitted that his close-up portrayals of orcs' dialogue and behavior in The Lord of the Rings were drawn in part from the brutish ways of the Tommies he had served among in the First World War -- a remark made in sympathy with his son's discovery of the same barracks-traits in the RAF in 1944.

But Tolkien's earliest conception of that race of evil and soulless goblins dates from his actual service in that first war, and at that time he identified them quite literally with the German army only. Obviously his thinking changed as he grew older and more perceptive of the societal trends of the twentieth century, but I don't think he ever reached the point of eliminating all moral distinctions between the two sides, as the quote in question suggests.

Like Curious says, before spreading it further it would be very important to find the source of the quote and determine its context.

squire online:
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Jan 8 2011, 3:42pm

Post #4 of 17 (1379 views)
Well [In reply to] Can't Post

That's a great quote. Unfortunately, though I've searched for years, I've never been able to find a primary source for it.

"The ring cannot be destroyed, Gimli, son of Gloin, by any craft that we here possess. The ring was made in the fires of Mount Doom. Only there can it be unmade. The ring must be taken deep into Mordor and cast back into the fiery chasm from whence it came. One of you must do this."



Jan 8 2011, 5:00pm

Post #5 of 17 (1351 views)
Orcs as Germans? [In reply to] Can't Post

In Reply To
But Tolkien's earliest conception of that race of evil and soulless goblins dates from his actual service in that first war, and at that time he identified them quite literally with the German army only.

On what do you base that statement? John Garth says exactly the opposite in his great book, Tolkien and the Great War:

"Tolkien's moral vison is utterly different in application from the soldier's and the propagandist's. WIth the possible exception of the Hammer of Wrath, noted above*, Orcs and Elves do not equate to the Germans and the British; on the contrary, they distil the cruelty and the courage he saw on both sides in war, as well as more general qualities of barbarism and civilization. It was not the Kaiser that Tolkien demonized in Melko, but the tyranny of the machine over the individual, an international evil going back far earlier than 1914 but exercised with merciless abandon on the Western Front." (pp. 299-300.)

*The "Hammer of Wrath" was one of the Gnome-kindreds in "The Fall of Gondolin" consisting partly of escapee's from Melko's slave mines which Garth speculates was written with Tolkien's experiences in the Somme in mind (see pp. 294-295).

"Tolkien later insisted there was no parallel between the Goblins he had invented and the Germans he had fought, declaring, 'I've never had those sort of feelings about the Germans. I'm very anti that kind of thing.'" (pp. 218-219.)

So I'm quite surprised to see you say so categorically that in Tolkien's earliest conception he identified the Orcs/Goblins with the German army only. Unless you can back up that statement with some facts, you should probably avoid spreading it further.

'But very bright were the stars upon the margin of the world, when at times the clouds about the West were drawn aside.'



Jan 8 2011, 5:02pm

Post #6 of 17 (1345 views)
Not quite all the major sites [In reply to] Can't Post

You're right. I maybe overstated my case. But if you will type in those words (with quote marks around them) into Google, you will be amazed at how many times they turn up on Tolkien-related sites.

I think you're also right that this quote originated with the Wikipedia article, and spread from there. I suspected that it might be an "urban myth" but it sounded so good that I just had to check it out here, in the hopes that somebody might recognize it as a true quote.


Jan 8 2011, 5:05pm

Post #7 of 17 (1342 views)
You searched for years? [In reply to] Can't Post

That's interesting. It shows that this quote didn't just spring up yesterday, but has been around for a while. You're right that it's a great quote, but it has to be a genuine quote to be worth something, unfortunately. Too bad if it's not.


Jan 8 2011, 5:14pm

Post #8 of 17 (1339 views)
Thanks for your comments [In reply to] Can't Post

I find the subject of orcs very interesting. I don't know that I'd interpret Tolkien is saying that goblins were "evil and soulless" – especially if they were degraded Men or Elves, as Tolkien mostly seem to lean towards. In other words, Morgoth had not created them out of "slime". If orcs had originally been Men or Elves, then they would've retained their souls no matter how "evil" and degraded they had become. At least that's the way it seems to me. Tolkien did say that it would be going too far to call orcs "irredeemable."

Not to worry, I'm not about to spread this quote around unless I can verify that it's an actual Tolkien quote. That's why first checked it out on this site. I figured if anybody knew if it was bona fide, it would be one of you.

Bogus Tolkien quotes? What next? Well, I guess it's to be expected. But I hope any future pretended-quotes get run through the gauntlet before spreading too far..


Jan 8 2011, 5:23pm

Post #9 of 17 (1355 views)
I bow to the scholars, but [In reply to] Can't Post

think it likely started as a paraphrase of Tolkien's opinion about orcish behavior on both sides of the Wars, first and second; especially, I think (IMO), in Letter 66.

And then, like all things Wikipedian, someone misplaced "quoatation marks" around something that was not, in actuality, a direct quote. And now it is replicated everywhere on the internet.

The progress of orc, er, man.



"an seileachan"


Jan 8 2011, 8:02pm

Post #10 of 17 (1359 views)
I was glad to see [In reply to] Can't Post

that our resident experts don't consider this likely to be a genuine Tolkien quote - because in its sweeping dismissal it doesn't sound, to me at least, like genuine Tolkien opinion!

Yes, he equated some of the behaviour and attitudes he saw on both sides of the war as 'orcish'. But I've never heard anything to suggest that he thought "all" were orcish. On the contrary, I think he believed in and wanted to celebrate the unsung heroism of many of his comrades-in-arms - and perhaps most of all that of his lost friends of the TCBS.

They went in, and Sam shut the door.
But even as he did so, he heard suddenly,
deep and unstilled,
the sigh and murmur of the Sea upon the shores of Middle-earth.
From the unpublished Epilogue to the Lord of the Rings

N.E. Brigand

Jan 8 2011, 9:46pm

Post #11 of 17 (1370 views)
Tolkien: "monsters, trolls, giants = barbarity = Germans" (1915). [In reply to] Can't Post

At least, according to this post by visualweasel. I'm not at home now and can't check the Qenyaqetsa myself. I note that in this post, visualweasel wrote: "Tolkien gives the Qenya word kalimbo 'a savage, uncivilized man, barbarian — giant, monster, troll' right alongside kalimbardi, 'the Germans'". Perhaps that's what squire was thinking of?

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Jan 8 2011, 10:10pm

Post #12 of 17 (1366 views)
Yes, but that's not about the orcs, exactly [In reply to] Can't Post

Thanks for finding that reference - I looked everywhere, but I guess I don't have a text of the Qenyaqetsa. I actually thought I remembered seeing this reference in a commentary by some critic (Shippey? Croft? Garth?), but perhaps I am just channeling visualweasel's good posts of the past two years.

In any case, I misremembered. In 1915 Tolkien linguistically equated the Germans of the WW I era with the "barbarians" and "evil creatures" (i.e., trolls) of his imaginary world, but not specifically with the orcs of Morgoth. Thanks for finding the reference, NEB, and for catching my indistinction, Voronwe.

squire online:
RR Discussions: The Valaquenta, A Shortcut to Mushrooms, and Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
Lights! Action! Discuss on the Movie board!: 'A Journey in the Dark'. and 'Designing The Two Towers'.
Footeramas: The 3rd (and NOW the 4th too!) TORn Reading Room LotR Discussion; and "Tolkien would have LOVED it!"
squiretalk introduces the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: A Reader's Diary

= Forum has no new posts. Forum needs no new posts.


Jan 8 2011, 10:26pm

Post #13 of 17 (1330 views)
Garth addresses that too [In reply to] Can't Post

Looking again, I see, actually, that Garth addresses that very question, and suggests that if anything Tolkien's experience in the war eliminated any sense of the Germans as being specifically associated with the evil creatures of his creations.

"'The Fall of Gondolin is one of Tolkien's most sustained accounts of battle. But Gondolin under attack is not the Somme, despite its corpse-choked waters and smoke-filled claustrophobia. Least of all does the tale dress up the English as Gnomes and the Germans as Goblins. Prior to the Somme, Tolkien had written the Germans into his Qenya lexicon as kalimbardi, associated with kalimbo, 'a savage, uncivilized man, barbarian. -- giant, monster, troll'. These words now appeared in the more recent 'Poetic and Mythological Words' simply as 'goblins', 'goblin, monster'." Garth then goes on to describe how in the battle Tolkien encounted "an enemy will all the hallmarks of humanity. Meanwhile, the Allies also used poison gas and unofficially sanctioned the killings of captives." (p. 218) He then goes on to quote the statement that I cited earlier in which Tolkien declares there had never been any parallel between the goblins he created and the Germans. Unfortunately, Garth doesn't appear to provide a citation showing where that quotation is from. Does anyone know?

Anyway, thanks for the heads up, N.E.B.

'But very bright were the stars upon the margin of the world, when at times the clouds about the West were drawn aside.'


Forum Admin / Moderator

Jan 8 2011, 10:52pm

Post #14 of 17 (1342 views)
On the subject of Tolkien "quotes" [In reply to] Can't Post

I have seen this attributed to Tolkien, but have never been able to find the source:

"Little by little, one travels far."

Is it genuine, or just another Tolkien-ish saying?


"I desired dragons with a profound desire"

"It struck me last night that you might write a fearfully good romantic drama, with as much of the 'supernatural' as you cared to introduce. Have you ever thought of it?"
-Geoffrey B. Smith, letter to JRR Tolkien, 1915


Jan 9 2011, 1:04pm

Post #15 of 17 (1332 views)
Again, I'm suspicious because I cannot find any citations. [In reply to] Can't Post

Almost every legitimate quote from Tolkien can be found, with citation, by Googling. No luck with this one. I found the quote, alright, but never a citation.

Finding Frodo
Tol Eressea

Jan 12 2011, 4:18pm

Post #16 of 17 (1286 views)
Yes, that's what I thought of too [In reply to] Can't Post

I remembered Tolkien saying something like that, though I couldn't have picked out the letter as fast as you did, a.s. When I pulled out the book to look at your reference ("we started out with a great many Orcs on our side" in letter 66) I skimmed ahead a little bit and found a similar statement in #71: "...in real life they (orcs)* are on both sides, of course." and "In real (exterior)* life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels."

There are probably a few more statements like this, but I agree with the other responses that the exact words in the original post of this thread are not directly attributable to Tolkien, but rather a paraphrase of his words.

*first parentheses mine, second parentheses Tolkien's

Where's Frodo?


Jan 12 2011, 6:03pm

Post #17 of 17 (1360 views)
yeah, I couldn't find a source for that one either [In reply to] Can't Post

I was looking a few months ago, but it didn't sound familiar to me from the Letters or anything, and I couldn't find a source anywhere. So it's probably apocryphal.

For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much -- the wheel, New York, wars, and so on -- while all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man, for precisely the same reasons. -- Douglas Adams


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