Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Saving the Orcs from Sauron

I'm doing a lot of RPG work lately and somebody just said something which started to trigger a rant I realized I hadn't posted here.

Evil races.

Of which the archetype is, of course, the orcs. (Trolls, too, but we see fewer of those).

Orcs are "a twisting of elves" and created by Sauron in his image. They are born evil. This isn't the concept of original sin (which really means "Human nature is flawed, try to do better" IMO), it's Orcs Are Evil And Always Will Be.

Because I dance around in both fantasy and science fiction, I have a desire for my fantasy races to make sense.

Inherently evil only makes sense if you're dealing with, for example, literal demons. And the inherently evil orcs are also, well. Problematic.

The idea that a sentient species is "inherently evil" is not dissimilar from primitive ideas about race, when you think about it. Tolkein portrays his orcs as scrambling for power, as not dissimilar from the demons in C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters (A classic Christian apologetic if you enjoy that kind of thing) - although The Hobbit precedes The Screwtape Letters in publication by about five years.

But demons aren't inherently evil either, in Christian thought. Demons are evil because they rebelled against god, not because they were created by Satan.

Story wise, the orcs serve a purpose. They go up alongside zombies, actual World War II Nazis and Storm Troopers as "Things the PCs can kill without feeling bad about it." Or, in game terms, "monsters." In a classic dungeon crawl, everything you find in the dungeon is inherently and irredeemably evil or else bestial (e.g. bears). By making the orcs evil, it confirms the main characters in their goodness. They kill evil things. It avoids going into the nuances of "Well, murder is wrong, but it's a war" - and Tolkein knew plenty about war. The Hobbit was published in 1937, right before World War II. By the time he finished The Lord of the Rings, World War II had happened - and the veterans had returned (There's a lot about the difficulties of the returning veteran in the otherwise gratuitous epilogue "The Scouring of the Shire").

He knew all about dehumanizing the enemy - and he had already laid the ground for a literally dehumanized enemy.

So, is this a problem? Orcs aren't people...

...except they are. Individual orcs get names and personalities. Unpleasant ones, true, but personalities nonetheless. Tolkein, perhaps because of his time, perhaps because of the two major wars he lived through, failed to touch on something important.

The orcs are Sauron's chief victims.

Yes, victims. They are created twisted, short-lived, and raised in a culture that values only personal strength. And then even their ultimate creator brands them "inherently evil." Missing the fact that Britain's enemies in the war were big on branding people inherently bad.

Not one single orc is ever redeemed. Not one single orc is acknowledged as a victim of Sauron's manipulation. We never find out what happens to the orcs after Mordor falls - we're led to assume what? They all die?

And this problem spreads through D&D. Orcs appear in 5th edition only in "Volo's Guide to Monsters" - with only half-orcs being presented as a playable core race. Many players and GMs still see orcs as "an evil race."

Yet orcs, in the source material, should reasonably be reframed as victims of Sauron. Victims that the great and the good don't care about enough to save. Saruman's fall is in part represented by acquiring orcs - although we never find out from where.

It's time to unpack the evil race idea (and I say this as a fan of Tolkein's work) - to unpack it and understand that at its heart it is a weird kind of socially acceptable fantasy racism. (And as a note, The Force Awakens reframes storm troopers as victims of the Empire).

If nothing else, we can create fantasy worlds in which orcs are not evil - maybe just different. The reframing of orcs as primitive or barbaric which people commonly use to get around this problem can also lead to trouble.

It's time to save the orcs from Sauron - and perhaps to envision an orcish race that was indeed born in evil but has since risen beyond it. Hrm. I don't need any more ideas...