Although not dim-witted and even crafty, they are portrayed as miserable beings, hating everyone including themselves and their masters, whom they serve out of fear. They make no beautiful things, but rather design cunning devices made to hurt and destroy.
Orc is from Old English orcneas, which appears in the epic poem Beowulf and refers to one of the races who are called the offspring of Cain during the initial description of Grendel ("Þanon untydras ealle onwocon,/eotenas ond ylfe, ond orcneas," ll. 221-222) . In a letter of 1954 Tolkien gave orc as "demon" and claimed he used the word because of its "phonetic suitability" - its similarity to various equivalent terms in his Middle-earth languages. In an essay on Elven languages, written in 1954, Tolkien gives meaning of 'orc' as "evil spirit or bogey" and goes on to state that the origin of the Old English word is the Latin name Orcus — god of the underworld.
About the goblins of The Hobbit, Tolkien wrote:
They are not based on direct experience of mine; but owe, I suppose, a good deal to the goblin tradition ... especially as it appears in George MacDonald, except for the soft feet which I never believed in.
Uruk and Uruk-hai were reserved for the Uruks themselves, a special breed or breeds of Orc; they called smaller, weaker Orcs snaga, "slave". The Grey Elves also referred to the Orcs as a whole as the Glamhoth, "noisy horde". The word "goblin" is used to represent the original Hobbit Orc. In The History of Middle-earth Tolkien writes about an Orc captain named Boldog but later specifies that Boldog may have been either a term or a title for another special kind of Orc instead of a personal name.
In The Book of Lost Tales the names Orcs and goblin are given to creatures who enslave and war with the Elves. Christopher Tolkien notes that whilst in the Tale of Tinúviel the author clearly differentiates between "goblins and Orcs", the two terms appear to be synonymous in the Tale of Turambar. The word Gongs is also used on a few occasions and it appears both distinct from Orcs, and as a sub-type of Orc, Christoper Tolkien remarks that Gongs are "evil beings obscurely related to Orcs";. Both goblins and Orcs are occasionally mentioned as being "of Melko" and also acting independently. Two Lexicons of elvish language also appear. The Quenta Lexicon from approximately 1915 defines Orc as meaning "monster, demon" , and the Gnomish Lexicon dated 1917, gives Orc a definition of "goblin", alongside a definition of Gong as "one of a tribe of the Orcs, a goblin". Christopher Tolkien also notes, with interest, that in the Lexicon the word Gnome (later Noldor) is an emendation from Goblin.
In The Hobbit, the inhabitants of the Misty Mountains who capture the dwarves for trespassing, and later fight the Men, Elves and Dwarves at the Battle of Five Armies, are identified as goblins, which is largely consistent with the use in The Book of Lost Tales. The term Orc does occur, in an instance where Gandalf is trying to scare Bilbo by mentioning creatures of the wilderness "goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst description" where goblins are again differentiated from Orcs, and also in the Elvish name of Thorin's sword, Orcrist.
In The Lord of the Rings, Orc is used predominantly, and goblin appears mostly in the Hobbits' speech. The second volume of the novel, The Two Towers, contains passages where the more generic 'goblin' is used to describe Saruman's Uruk-hai as being different from the usual 'Orc':
There were four goblin-soldiers of greater stature, swart, slant-eyed, with thick legs and large hands. They were armed with short broad-bladed swords, not with the curved scimitars usual with Orcs: and they had bows of yew, in length and shape like the bows of Men.And:
Upon a stake in the middle was set a great goblin head; upon its shattered helm the white badge could still be seen.
The "white badge" mentioned in the latter passage makes it clear that the beheaded goblin was one of the Uruk-hai. Tolkien writes that these bore a white Elf-rune with the value of "S" on their helmets.
Tolkien also wrote the following note, appearing in some editions of The Hobbit:
Orc is not an English word. It occurs in one or two places but is usually translated goblin (or hobgoblin for the larger kinds). Orc is the hobbits' form of the name given at that time to these creatures, and it is not connected at all with orc, ork, applied to sea-animals of dolphin-kind.
The original edition of The Hobbit and early drafts of The Lord of the Rings first used goblin everywhere and used hobgoblin for larger, more evil goblins. Whilst investigating possible sources for the words "Hobbit" Tolkien realised he had made a mistake in using "hob" — which is traditionally used to mean a 'smaller' entity, not a larger one.
In his later, post-The Lord of the Rings writings (including The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and many essays published in The Peoples of Middle-earth), Tolkien preferred the spelling Ork, evidently mainly to avoid the form Orcish, which would be naturally pronounced with the c as /s/ instead of /k/ in English. Tolkien indeed used the adjective Orkish.
Tolkien describes Orcs explicitly in one of his Letters:
...they are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.
At first glance this looks blatantly racist, but the qualifier "to Europeans" casts it in a very different light: Tolkien explicitly recognized that different cultures have different standards of beauty, and that his impressions did not reflect any underlying superiority. Moreover, he made it clear that the Orcs were not in any sense actual "Mongol-types", but "degraded and repulsive versions" of humanoid stock."Nevertheless," Jensen adds, "[Tolkien's] comment certainly falls short of modern standards of sensitivity."
[...] needed a human model which, when distorted beyond realistic appearance, might appear monstrous and corrupted. In fact, many Asian cultures represent demons and evil gods in a similar fashion. I feel Tolkien's choice was inspired by a broad understanding of mythology, and not by racism.
Martinez also opines that Tolkien may have based the Orcs on the Huns, in the sense of their "historical context" within Middle-earth as enemy hordes and pillagers. This should not be surprising since he based his writings on a Western viewpoint and the Mongol Empire did reach Europe.
Even so, some white supremacists interpret The Lord of the Rings as portraying white western European-types as "good" and ugly dark-skinned non-whites as "bad". Jensen says in his FAQ that this reading confuses "the symbolic conflict between 'darkness' and 'light' ... for a conflict between 'black' and 'white'," which is interpreted racially. Jensen asserts that "blackness", "whiteness", "lightness", "darkness" and skin color itself are not used in a clear-cut manner to distinguish good and evil, and that the actual "swarthy Men" serving Sauron (Haradrim) are implied to be "unwilling slaves, not evil at heart."
As Tolkien himself said of racism:
I should regret giving any colour to the notion that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.
Saruman apparently bred his own modified orcs. Tolkien wrote of Saruman creating Men-orcs and Orc-men in "Myths Revisited" in Morgoth's Ring. There has been speculation that these Uruk-hai were cross-bred with Men of Dunland, and these could withstand the sunlight. However, this has never been stated directly. The Orc-men, also called Half-orcs and goblin-men, were definitely crossbreeds.
In terms of "political factions", the Orcs served Morgoth in Angband and subsequently Sauron in Mordor. By the time of the War of the Ring, some served Saruman in Isengard. However, as Sauron laid low after losing the Ring at the end of the Second Age (before returning to Mordor), some Orcs must have worked independently. Before and during the time when The Hobbit takes place, some Orcs had Mount Gundabad as their capital, the Orcs of the Misty Mountains were apparently ruled by one "Great Goblin", the former Dwarf-realm of Moria was held by Orcs under one Azog and then his son Bolg, and one Golfimbul had led the Orcs of Mount Gram in a foray into the Shire.
When Sauron returned to power in Mordor in the Third Age, Black Speech was used by the captains of his armies and by his servants in Barad-dûr.
A substantial sample of debased Black Speech/Orkish can be found in The Two Towers, where the Mordor Uruk Grishnákh curses the Isengard Uruk Uglúk:
In The Peoples of Middle-earth, Tolkien gives the translation: "Uglúk to the cesspool, sha! the dungfilth; the great Saruman-fool, skai!". However, in a note published in the Tolkien scholarly linguistic journal Vinyar Tengwar this alternative translation is given: "Uglúk to the dung-pit with stinking Saruman-filth, pig-guts, gah!"
To some extent Tolkien did not regard Orcs as inherently evil, or evil in their own right, but rather as tools and slaves of Morgoth and Sauron, hating themselves and their masters as they hated everyone else. He wrote once that "we were all orcs in The Great War".
In the non-canonical animated adaption of The Return of the King, released in 1980 by Rankin-Bass, the scene where the disguised Samwise and Frodo are accidentally swept up in a passing platoon of Orcs is expanded so that it first focuses on the platoon singing a song. This song, "Where There's A Whip, There's A Way", heavily suggests that these Orcs, at least, do not want to fight, but are being mercilessly forced to go to battle by Sauron and his whip-wielding taskmasters.
Unlike the orc-néas ('orc-corpses') of Beowulf, no female Orcs are ever mentioned by Tolkien in any publication. However, in the published Silmarillion it is stated that Orcs "breed after the manner of Elves and Men", implying that there are; in The Hobbit the Orc Bolg is the son of one Azog, while Gollum is described as having eaten a young Orc child ("goblin-imp") shortly before he first met Bilbo. Tolkien confirms in a letter that female Orcs did exist.
There is some evidence for the immortality, or otherwise long life of Orcs in The Two Towers: Gorbag and Shagrat, during the conversation which Sam overheard, mention the "Great Siege" of the Last Alliance. It is possible to interpret from the sentence that they were actually there and remembered it themselves: an event which lay millennia in the past. Another interpretation of this conversation is that this "Great Siege" could have instead been merely the current siege ongoing at Minas Tirith, or the siege of Minas Morgul. They certainly did live for at the very least hundreds of years, since Bolg was the son of Azog and his death occurred over 140 years after the death of his father. This second theory is consistent with a statement made in the "Myths Transformed" essay of Morgoth's Ring that the orcs had short lifespans in relation to the Númenóreans.
Since this version of the origin of Orcs explicitly appears in the published Silmarillion, many have accepted it at face value as Tolkien's final views on the matter. However, as can be seen, Tolkien wrote later differing accounts, which may reflect his final intentions (see Middle-earth canon).
This manner of the Orc's creation is referred to in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by Saruman after creating the Uruk-hai.
Some of these things may have been delusions and phantoms but some were no doubt shapes taken by the servants of Melkor, mocking and degrading the very forms of the children. For Melkor had in his service great numbers of Maiar, who had the power, as their Master, of taking visible and tangible shape in Arda.
Boldog (…) is a name that occurs many times in the tales of the War. But it is possible that Boldog was not a personal name, and either a title, or else the name of a kind of creature: the Orc-formed Maiar, only less formidable than the Balrogs
Melkor had corrupted many spirits — some great as Sauron, or less as Balrogs. The least could have been primitive Orcs.
There is no doubt that long afterwards, in the Third Age, Saruman rediscovered this, or learned of it in lore, and in his lust for mastery committed this, his wickedest deed: the interbreeding of Orcs and Men, producing both Men-orcs large and cunning, and Orc-men treacherous and vile.
While Tolkien at some point saw all Orcs as descended from tortured Elves, later comments of his indicate, according to Christopher Tolkien in Morgoth's Ring ("Myths Transformed, text X"), that he began to feel uncomfortable with this theory. At about the same time he removed the references to the Thrall-Ñoldorin, he also began searching for a new origin for the Orcs. The question of Orc origin may have been one of the problems Tolkien tried to solve by completely changing the cosmology and prehistory of Arda. By setting the origin of Men back to almost the same time as the Elves, he possibly allowed for Men to be the origin of Orcs all along. Tolkien died before he could complete this upheaval of the cosmology, however, so the Elf origin was adopted in the published version of The Silmarillion.
The Orcs were beasts of humanized shape […].
It is certain all Orcs were dependent on the Dark Lord in various ways: after their leader was defeated, the Orcs were confused and dismayed, and easily scattered by their enemies. In the millennia after Morgoth's defeat and banishment from Arda, they were without a leader, and degenerated to small, quarrelsome tribes hiding in the Misty Mountains. Only when Sauron returned to power did they begin to reclaim some of their old power. The same happened after Sauron's defeat by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men: only when Sauron returned as the Necromancer of Mirkwood did the Orcs become a real danger for Middle-earth again.
C. S. Lewis may have inserted a nod to his friend's Orcs in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When Aslan goes to his death on the Stone Table, the narrator mentions various evil creatures gathered around the White Witch — including "Orknies" (the name is also directly based on the above Old English term).
Orcs have been featured in many adaptations of Tolkien's Middle-earth writings, from film to stage to video games. The Goblins in the 1977 animated adaptation of 'The Hobbit were likened to the work of Maurice Sendak. and are portrayed in exactly the same manner as the Orcs in the sequel The Return of the King (1980 film)''. Some adaptations have made Goblins distinct from Orcs. This was implied in New Line Cinema's The Lord of the Rings film trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, and can be seen in the real-time strategy games The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring and The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II. In the former, Goblins can be used alongside common Orcs and Uruk-hai, while in the latter Goblins get their own playable faction.
In The Rise of the Witch-king, an expansion pack for The Battle for Middle-earth II, the Angmar faction uses "Gundabad Orcs" as ordinary foot soldiers, referring to their capital of Mount Gundabad. Like the Goblins of the Misty Mountains, they sometimes ride wolves in battle.