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The One Ring Forums: Tolkien Topics: Reading Room:
Orcs and Free Will

Flame of Udun

Oct 21 2013, 11:03pm

Post #1 of 17 (921 views)
Orcs and Free Will Can't Post

A simple enough question: Do orcs in Middle Earth (throughout the ages) have free will? Do they do everything they are told by their master(s) because of fear and mob mentality, or could it just be they are unable to turn back due to the nature of their species?

Another (somewhat) related question, why do orcs not show any compassion or mercy towards men, elves, dwarves etc, and vice versa?

"'Ai! ai!' wailed Legolas. 'A Balrog! A Balrog is come!'
Gimli stared with wide eyes. 'Durin's Bane!' he cried, and letting his axe fall he covered his face.
'A Balrog,' muttered Gandalf. 'Now I understand. What an evil fortune! And I am already weary.''

Tol Eressea

Oct 22 2013, 7:49am

Post #2 of 17 (644 views)
Some thoughts [In reply to] Can't Post

Tolkien never found a satisfactory answer to the origin of the Orcs. But if we go with the most commonly accepted one - that they're corrupted Elves - then surely they have free will, for it's not in Melkor's power to take that away.

However, while free their will seems to be very weak. They seem to be easily commanded by the likes of Melkor and Sauron, even Saruman, and once that command is lost they scatter into primitive tribes. They have culture of their own, and that seems to be chiefly filled with aggression and bitterness. Such surroundings hardly provide an ideal circumstances for anyone to grow up and develop a mature, individual personality. We see glimpses of Orcs and Uruks showing feelings such as pride in your own folk and respect towards your leaders - the Uruks gave Saruman the name Sharku, Old Man. Though I don't think they feel for Sauron and Melkor anything but hatred and fear, that such feelings can exist implicate they're not complete monsters, more like incredibly mentally mutilated people.

This all reminds of that Russian family with mother,father, daughter and son... they lived by murdering other families and stealing their belongings. What can child do but to grow up as his parents show him? What would an Orc child know of life but what he learns in the Orc culture? But born he is, and becomes a part of that culture. So it cannot be entirely inhuman, in the sense that wild animals can form and keep up social communities where they don't kill each other but co-operate and grow up new members from their cubs.

As for compassion towards Elves and the others... Compassion, love and mercy are feelings which we learn to feel once we've received them ourselves. A child which has never been loved can't love others, and a man who has never received mercy doesn't show it to others.

But every word you say today
Gets twisted 'round some other way
And they'll hurt you if they think you've lied


Oct 22 2013, 7:49am

Post #3 of 17 (625 views)
They don't even show compassion to other orcs. [In reply to] Can't Post

Consider Gorbag and Shagrat joking about leaving Ufthak hanging in Shelob's lair.

There are conflicting theories in Tolkien's papers as to whether they're corrupted Elves or corrupted Men or something else. Some of them (e.g. Goblin King) seem to have some level of autonomy, but given the behavior of the orcs at the Black Gate after the fall of Sauron, I would hesitate to ascribe free will to them.

My guess is that whatever process corrupted the original unfortunate beings left them enslaved mentally as well as physically.

Tol Eressea

Oct 22 2013, 7:58am

Post #4 of 17 (631 views)
I think that the fact they can and do hate Melkor/Sauron [In reply to] Can't Post

shows in the deepest level they have free will. But if someone of great, commanding personality and power orders them, it's hard for them to resist. Perhaps it's mostly command of supernatural kind, but I can't help but to see element of "habitual crime" it it. A corrupted person isn't as mentally strong as a mentally healthy person with strong attachment to personal virtue. (Sorry, I can't find the right words to express this idea...)

But every word you say today
Gets twisted 'round some other way
And they'll hurt you if they think you've lied

Tol Eressea

Oct 22 2013, 4:18pm

Post #5 of 17 (583 views)
Yes......the word escapes me..... [In reply to] Can't Post

I think it is similar to the relation between an abuser and abuse victim. They sometimes become so demoralised, that they cannot imagine themselves being cared for by anyone else. So they channel their affection to their abuser, because at least they care that they exist. At least there they have purpose--to serve their abuser.

A terrible, twisted, and sick specimen of thinking that is imposed by a psychopath on another human being.

Endor Dweller

Oct 22 2013, 6:53pm

Post #6 of 17 (565 views)
Yes, it is similar to abuser/abuse victim relation [In reply to] Can't Post

It reminds me of the Stockholm syndrome. Identifying with the abuser is one way that the ego defends itself. That's why "this it may be was the vilest deed of Melkor, and the most hateful to Iluvatar."

- Good morning.
- What do you mean? Do you mean to wish me a good morning, or do you mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not? Or perhaps you mean to say that you feel good on this particular morning...or are you simply stating that this is a morning to be good on?

- Good evening.
- Yes, yes it is. Though I think it might rain later.


Oct 22 2013, 10:02pm

Post #7 of 17 (579 views)
Ah, but the Troll William wanted to show Bilbo mercy. [In reply to] Can't Post

I believe that they all had a measure of free will, but since Melloker captured the elves young to corrupt them, then taught them nothing but evil, brainwashing them essentially, it was at best a buried and suppressed version of it. If all you know is evil, how then could you be good without being taught? The troll William kinda made me come to that conclusion. Their will might be weaker then uncorrupted mend and elves, and therefore more easily enslaved to someone who has the power to do so.

(This post was edited by RosieBaggins on Oct 22 2013, 10:07pm)

Hamfast Gamgee

Oct 22 2013, 10:55pm

Post #8 of 17 (569 views)
The Orcs in the tales that we read about [In reply to] Can't Post

Are heavily influenced by a powerful evil overlord nearby! Possibly where they are few people and underground free from evil influence, some might have more pleasant deeds!

Hamfast Gamgee

Oct 22 2013, 11:21pm

Post #9 of 17 (561 views)
We don't necessarily see it said [In reply to] Can't Post

But it did seem that the Uruk-hai had a little comeradry.

(This post was edited by Hamfast Gamgee on Oct 22 2013, 11:29pm)


Oct 22 2013, 11:57pm

Post #10 of 17 (542 views)
Good point [In reply to] Can't Post

Shagrat and Gorbag were from rival camps, but they knew each other and were friends to some degree, even to the point of sharing secrets they didn't want other Orcs to hear. It didn't keep them from killing each other, but you raise the point that they were not mere rabid animals or killing machines. Though they still fall a little shy of being cute and cuddly, unless there are Orc smurfs out there somewhere.


Oct 23 2013, 4:00am

Post #11 of 17 (534 views)
Just following orders? [In reply to] Can't Post

the command that melkor or saruman had over them is not necessarily supernatural. Humans do have an ability to rationalise committing inhuman acts when ordered to do so by a higher power. As you say, because they are corrupted this aspect of human nature is probably more easily exploited.

Tol Eressea

Oct 23 2013, 3:33pm

Post #12 of 17 (576 views)
Yes, there could be an innumerable amount of small things that add up... [In reply to] Can't Post

To large scale atrocities. Tolkien had issues in resolving this himself. He said that he didn't 'deal in Absolute Evil' because that is 'zero--nothing'. He needed to have some 'bad guys' but in the larger scheme, they needed to be able to have a vestige of goodness, and the ability for redemption.

How do you redeem an orc?

That was one of the problems that perplexed him, up until his death.

Side note:

I am surprised Maciliel has not cropped up here. We all know how she feels about orcs. All warm fuzzies inside, right Maciliel? TongueWink


Oct 23 2013, 4:52pm

Post #13 of 17 (507 views)
Yes, I'm waiting anxiously for her to come to their defense [In reply to] Can't Post

with the fury of Athena and a flaming sword.

Dame Ioreth
Tol Eressea

Oct 23 2013, 5:20pm

Post #14 of 17 (509 views)
The idea of redemption [In reply to] Can't Post

comes up a lot in conversations I have with a friend of mine who doesn't care for Tolkien. I am a believer in redemption in more than the religious sense. I am the type of person who wants to see good in everyone and looks very hard for it (except for the lady screaming at me in another language at my pharmacy yesterday - I could find no good in her Crazy ) Orcs to me seems to have had the free will beaten out of them for generations so that at the time we meet them, self-preservation will out-weigh any kind of empathy or caring. I see their culture as the basest form of what humans *could* become if we stop taking care of each other. My friend, who does not put much stock in redemption, sees bad as bad. She reminds me, in a way of Lady Ingram in Jane Eyre - some children are born with bad blood, etc.... I find that outlook rather distasteful ... and depressing.

So, is it a case of Nature vs. Nuture for orcs? With the fall of Sauron and the loss of the direct and constant evil influence, is their hope for Orcs in a generation or so? Even though they have bad dental hygiene and a hankering for meat that drives them to extremes in eating habits, I would like to think that Eru has not abandoned them. Is this part of his plan? See how far a race of beings can fall without the saving grace of the pure Song?

Where there's life there's hope, and need of vittles.
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings


Oct 23 2013, 6:28pm

Post #15 of 17 (508 views)
Enlightened self-interest and redemption [In reply to] Can't Post

I have always wanted to believe in the possibility for redemption for anyone, just one of those internal beliefs that makes you who you are. As I get older and see how many mistakes I make along with everyone I know, it's become less of an an abstract wish that redemption exists and more of a concrete one, thinking, "Dang, I blew it, and more than once, and not on purpose, but it doesn't matter, other people got hurt, and I'd like to make amends." Given the desire for personal redemption makes you want it all the more for others, I believe, so put me in the camp that would like to think that even Orcs can be saved somehow. Never made cuddly, but made less savage. Maybe like the sharks in Finding Nemo who were trying to become vegaterians to redeem themselves.

Gollum is more twisted and crazy than most Orcs (even they seem appalled by him), so to think that he had a moment of redemption spontaneously appear out of thin air (ruined by Sam), makes me think similar moments could await Orcs. And they could be missed opportunities also, but at least they'd appear.


Oct 23 2013, 6:55pm

Post #16 of 17 (510 views)
Yes... [In reply to] Can't Post

I agree Ioreth and seeing something good and the potential for redemption in people is something that I strive for- but while I am human, I will not always be successful (like you with your screaming lady- I've had to deal with a few like that in my time!Wink) I have been called naive and a mug for wanting to believe the best of people, and, sometimes, that proves to be the case- but not always by any means!Smile

With regards to the Orcs- I like to think that they could be redeemed to some extent- but I am not sure how this would happen. When the Ring is destroyed, the servants of Sauron, including the Orcs, are seemingly unable to think much for themselves and certainly don't seem to sue for peace or try to change their ways (although some Men do). Maybe the rehabilitation of the Orcs is a millenia-long project, which is still going on today?Unimpressed

Is there a Tolkien topic that you have wanted to look into more deeply and write about your thoughts on it? If so, we'd like to hear from you for the next TORn Amateur Symposium- coming in November. Happy writing!

The Shire

Nov 11 2013, 9:35pm

Post #17 of 17 (481 views)
do Orcs have souls? [In reply to] Can't Post

It's really going to all come down to that, isn't it.

To be clear, the issue Tolkien was trying to resolve in his latter days was the dichotomy between his earlier writings and his "serious" mythology.

His earlier writings were based on a mix of Germanic, English (same thing really) and Norse folk tales. Anything goes there, world's a puzzle of infinite complexity, all sorts of odd critters and powers running around. No more need to justify Orcs breeding true than explain how acorns sprout.

When he got "serious", though, he moved into an analogue of Middle Earth Christianity. Everything devolves from Eru (God), and everything unattractive from the Great Enemy. Demons, sprites, talking animals, everything is just a flavor of angel (or Valar, Maiar, same thing).

But, if you want to keep the enchanting complexity? Along with grandfathering in the early critters and were-bears and sleepy rivers and grumpy trees? Gets a little difficult to carry the tune there. :)

No point here, because there is no answer to this question. The only one who can answer it is no longer with us. My opinion, though, is that given time Tolkien would have broadened his vision. We'd have non-Maiar supernaturals, Eru enabled magic, and sentient squirrels. Because, frankly, the stories just work better that way. In which case, yep, Orcs have free will. But that's just me. Wink


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