May 7, 2018

Let's Read Tolkien 44: The Uruk-hai

Pippin lay in a dark and troubled dream: it seemed that he could hear his own small voice echoing in black tunnels, calling Frodo! Frodo!

Peregrin Took awakes from his dream to find that he and Merry are prisoners of an orc-band. He recalls running off to look for Frodo like a fool, and blundering right into a group of orcs. The orcs were very eager to take them prisoner, but Boromir appeared and drove them off. A larger group of orcs - at least a hundred by Pippin's count - then attacked, and he remembered no more. Pippin feels pretty miserable about himself, likening himself to a piece of luggage (shades of Bilbo).

As the evening darkens, Pippin listens to the orcs having an argument. To his surprise, they're using the Common Speech, apparently because there are at least three different groups of orcs there and they don't understand each other's orcish. There are some orcs from Moria, a group from Mordor led by Grishnákh, and Uglúk and his fighting Uruk-hai, who are in the service of Saruman. Everyone agrees that they have orders to capture hobbits and bring them back alive, but the great debate is whether to take them to Mordor or Isengard. Grishnákh heaps scorn on Saruman ("Who does he think he is, setting up on his own with his filthy white badges?"), but eventually the argument is settled when Uglúk and his Uruk-hai kill several of the other orcs, and they set off for Isengard. In the confusion, Pippin grabs a knife from one of the dead orcs and manages to cut his bonds.

The orcs run through the night, with a stop toward the end where the hobbits are forced to drink some orc-liquor and are made to run along with the orcs. The northern orcs protest at running in sunlight, but Uglúk forces them to. During the run, Pippin takes an opportunity to escape the ranks and drop the brooch of his cloak, but he is swiftly recaptured.

They run and run, until the hobbits can't go on any more, even with orc-whips at their back. They're then picked up again and the orcs carry on, until they stop for another argument. They've spotted the "horse-boys", and Uglúk curses his scout, Snaga, who let his Rohan counterpart get away. They run all day and into the night, trying to reach Fangorn Forest before the riders can bring them to battle. They fail; the riders surround them on a small hillock outside the forest.

The hobbits have their legs tied and are placed under the guard of several of Uglúk's uruks. However, when the riders mount a raid late at night, their guards dash to the fight, and Grishnákh sneaks in and grabs the hobbits. As the orc searches them, Pippin realizes that Grishnákh knows about the Ring. Pippin does his best Gollum impression and gets a definite response, and when Merry reminds Grishnákh that at this rate, it will be Saruman who wins out, the orc is driven into a rage: he grabs the hobbits and makes a dash for the woods. He makes it a considerable distance until one of the riders shoots him, and he is ridden down, the hobbits discarded like baggage.

The hobbits lie down in the grass, concealed by their elven-cloaks, until a commotion breaks out in the camp and the riders tighten their cordon, leaving the unseen Merry and Pippin comfortably outside it. Pippin frees them from their bonds with Grishnákh's knife, and they salvage some lembas from their pockets. Eventually they manage to crawl and then walk into the woods, and at dawn they witness Éomer's riders charging the orc-camp. Fearing that Uglúk's uruks might make it to the woods, the hobbits flee, and miss Éomer slaying Uglúk in single combat.


So, we've caught up with the other side of the great chase through Rohan, and the story is now well entangled with Saruman and the Riders.

Since this chapter is named after a kind of orc, this seems like an appropriate time to talk about orcs in the Lord of the Rings in general. The name "orc" is an Anglo-Saxon word for some kind of nasty thing, found in Beowulf in interesting company:

eotenas ond ylfe / ond orcneas

The modern conception of the orc is based squarely on Tolkien's work, with additional embellishments from Dungeons and Dragons, and Warhammer, to the point where the orcs in later-day Tolkien-derived products like Shadow of Mordor look more like Warhammer orcs than Tolkien's creatures.

In far too many fantasy works, orcs are simply the stock enemy, who can be slaughtered in any numbers with no moral compunctions. This was most definitely not Tolkien's intention! In a couple of letters to his son Christopher (Letters, 71 and 78), he discusses orcs in the context of the Second World War, in which the younger Tolkien was serving at the time.

Yes, I think orcs as real a creation as anything in "realistic" fiction: your vigorous words well describe the tribe; only in real life they are on both sides, of course. For "romance" has grown out of "allegory", and its wars are still derived from the "inner war" of allegory in which good is on one side and various models of badness on the other. In real (exterior) life men are on both sides: which means a motley alliance of orcs, beasts, demons, plain naturally honest men, and angels. But it does make some difference who are your captains and whether they are orc-like per se!
(Letters, 71)

To understand Tolkien's intentions with his orcs, we have to understand two crucial points of his theology. The first is the Boëthian refutation of Manicheanism that I discussed ages ago in my post on the Shadow of the Past: good and evil are not two equal, diametrically opposed powers. Evil is weaker, because the universe, created by a benevolent god, is intrinsically good. From this follows, among other things, that evil can't truly create new things, but only twist, mock and corrupt. Therefore, Tolkien's orcs aren't creations of Sauron or Morgoth, but corruptions of already existing life (Letters, 144 and 153).

The other point follows from this: because the orcs were not originally evil, and because they are allowed to exist in an ultimately benevolent world, they are not by nature intrinsically evil or irredeemable. In Tolkien's words:

I nearly wrote "irredeemably bad"; but that would be going too far.
Because by accepting or tolerating their making - necessary to their actual existence - even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God's and ultimately good. (Letters, 153)

The theology was always clear: as, ultimately, the creations of a benevolent god, the orcs cannot be beyond salvation. So they're not just purely evil foot soldiers to be slaughtered at will.

Or at least they're not meant to be, because you can well question whether Tolkien actually manages to convey this. Tolkien's battle scenes rarely glorify war, but he doesn't really give orcs many opportunities to be anything other than villains. In this chapter, Uglúk and his Uruk-hai do get a distinct personality opposed to Grishnákh, and it's hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for the Moria goblins, but they are very much the barbaric villains of the story. Tolkien may not have intended the orcs to be one-dimensional bad guys, but it's hard to blame anyone coming away from this thinking that they are.


Next time: eotenas.

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