I’m a fantasy racist. There I admit it. It’s not entirely my fault. It’s what I was taught. From an early age, my fantasy godfathers and godmothers (well, mostly fathers actually), raised me to despise Goblins, Orcs, Trollocs and a host of other sub-human beings who tend to congregate in throngs, masses and “teeming hordes.” Let’s face it, when was the last time you met a “horde” that was “teeming” with good intentions? Right. I thought so. Vicious, mindless, perverse, prone to mayhem, pillaging and not above stewing other sentient beings in a cooking pot, I came to learn that there were precious few worthy qualities about any of them. The only good Orc is a dead Orc! Right….?
In Tolkien’s Middle Earth, during the Third Age and the War of the Ring, the lines between good and bad guys were pretty well established. While the noble “free” men of the West fought alongside the uber-fair-skinned Elves and Gandalf the White, “out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls with white eyes and red tongues” joined the “dark-skinned” Easterlings to ally with the evil Sauron. But hey, at least they weren’t full-time evil. In Tolkien’s universe, these weak-minded men of the South and East were just hood-winked and bamboozled by the Dark Lord (He who Sits on His Dark Throne), cut off from the almost “Christ-like” light of Maiar colonial missionaries. Though choosing the wrong-side of the spat over mystical jewelry, they are allowed to surrender at the end and are eventually “pardoned” by the wise and honorable white guys of Gondor. Not so for their Orcish and non-human allies, who are hunted down and killed with nary a shred of remorse. In fact, throughout the saga it’s made plain that Orc lives come cheap. The “good guys” have no qualms about holding a good ol’ fashioned “Orc-hunt” and gleefully rack up competitive points based on how many Orc-heads can be separated from Orc-bodies. The only good Orc….
The folks at tvtropes define these fictional characters, so common to the fantasy genre, under the role-playing appropriated heading, Always Chaotic Evil (ACE). As they explain, this is usually “the notion of not an organization, not a clan, not a city, but an entire race of bad guys who brag about how Evil they are.” Unlike their human counterparts, differences in ethos among ACE are non-existent; rather “all of the racial members” of such groups “behave evilly.” ACE beings are usually the creation of some bigger bad guy (or malevolent forces), a “ruined race” brought into existence for the sole purpose of carrying out all the general nastiness that needs doing–nullifying the existence of any familial structure (not to mention ovaries; ACE are usually all-male) or children, because slaying little Orc kids would be kinda douchey. This allows for near acts of ACE racial-genocide and wholesale ACE ethnic-cleansing–or at least restricting them to the usually non-arable segregated regions of the realm… where they belong!
Do I really need to spell out the metaphors to our real world here and all that’s wrong with it? It doesn’t help that these ACE are usually not only sub-human and near bestial, but as in the case of Orcs, by Tolkien’s own words, are “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.” Cringe. Cringe. And more… Cringe. There’s a line of thought that Tolkien was merely pulling from European medieval texts, who used such unflattering terms to describe the Mongols, Moors, Saracens and other “foreign” armies they encountered. Take for instance the semi-mythical Frankish Song of Roland:
And Ethiope, a cursed land indeed; The blackamoors from there are in his keep, Broad in the nose they are and flat in the ear, Fifty thousand and more in company. These canter forth with arrogance and heat, Then they cry out the pagans’ rallying-cheer;
Yeah…transcribing ethnocentric medieval descriptions of human differences into fictional sub-human monsters…still *cringe* worthy.
But before I get up on my soapbox, I should make a confession–I’m also a flagrant offender. After all, it’s what I grew up on. So it shouldn’t be surprising that in some of my own forays into fantasy, I’ve followed suit–with whole new Mooks for my heroes and heroines to “mow down with impunity.” In at least one of my published fantasy shorts, there’s an entire corps of ACE who, naturally, make up the bulk of the bad guy’s army. Inspired by varied African folklore, they’re definitively not Orcs–nor are they based on any existing human phenotypic differences. No “tall, broad-chested, sharp-nosed, pale-skinned, with thin mouths and blue eyes degraded and repulsive versions of the (to POC) least lovely Caucasian-types” in my stories…cuz that would be ridiculous. But they’re certainly distant relations of Orcs, with all the requisite unsavory characteristics. It’s not advisable you invite them over for coffee or let them take your daughter to prom.
My ability to so easily create such similar characters out of another cultural reference highlights one of the key reasons ACEs exists in the first place–they’re nothing new. Whether we’re talking about the cast-out angels of the Abrahamic faiths, the rather unpleasant Rakshasa demons in Buddhism and Hinduism, flesh-eating ghuls of Arabian folklore, the misshapen Nunashish and other malevolent spirits of varied Native American beliefs, finding a menagerie of mystical baddies across the human cultural map isn’t very hard. They exist in our mythologies and religions. Perhaps they’re the natural products of our fears of the dark, the night and the unknown. Or maybe they represent our need for cosmological duality–good and bad, light and dark, order and chaos. Whatever the case, they all make for easy appropriation into fantasy “races” who generally get off on doing really nasty things to others. Because let’s face it, they’re monsters.
And may the ghost of Edward Said forgive me, but I like em’! I want a “teeming horde” of baddies that make readers shiver, that can’t be reasoned or bargained with, that don’t want anything but your utter destruction. I want stand-ins for our fears of what lurk in the dark unexplored places, whose possible victory won’t just be a change of who’s in charge, but the end of mankind’s tenuous reign. I want a slew of bad guys who I don’t morally mind getting cleaved in two or run through by a spear. I don’t want to have to think about whether Orcs have families, or worse yet, if Orcs have feeeeeelllinnnnngs. Blech! I just want them to represent an impending malevolent threat to civilization, while my heroes and heroines hack, slash and butcher them in righteous mayhem. It’s fun. It’s guilt-free. And best of all, it’s easy.
Still, I do wonder… in the midst of all these dreamt up orgies of violence, do Orcs ever beg for mercy? What if they did have kids and wives to plead for before taking that battle-axe to the neck? What if on the Pelennor Fields they lay moaning and crying out for their mothers and wept they didn’t want to die? But then they wouldn’t be just monsters any more would they? And my near-genocidal fantasies wouldn’t seem all that heroic either. Humanizing an enemy always complicates the moral justifications of killing, even in our fictional wars. Arrrgh! Damn you critical thinking brain!
A few writers have broached these issues, offering at least slightly alternative perspectives on ACEs. One of the more common tropes that arises is the “good one,” wherein even if 99% of the ACE race is evil, there’s an individual who can break ranks. Ridiculously condescending, yes. But it also leaves open the possibility that their “evil” perhaps isn’t genetic and they’re as redemptive as any human. R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden for instance is a Drow (dark elf) who, unlike the other members of his ebon-skinned brethren, forsakes evil and joins the good guys–a virtual “credit to his race.” In Terry Brooks world of Shannara, the short, twisted, yellow-skinned race of Gnomes aren’t exactly ACEs, but they are generally prone to superstition, primitive, war-like and have a habit of either allying with (or getting enslaved into) the big bad guys’ armies. Still, in rare exceptions, a few might give up their normally bad ways or even become pacifists like the healer Stors. The Draconians of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance realms, while overwhelmingly ACE, do have a few noble members who also abandon the general evil ethos that marks their race.
Other writers have attempted to even tell tales from the POV of ACEs. John Gardner’s Grendel, while still leaving him a human-eating monster, at the least makes him a rather self-reflective one, searching for some semblance of philosophical truth. Set in the same D&D-based Forgotten Realms of Drizzt Do’Urden, The Orc King follows the attempts of a war-weary Orc chieftain trying to reform his fellow ACE hordes who, though by nature exhibit generally “uncivilized” behavior, are at least redeemable. One of the most daring attempts is Stan Nicholls Orcs, which manages to make complex ACEs out of its Orc protagonists, gives a reason for their actions (encroaching warring humans), bestows them with actual personalities and pits them against their own evil big bad
guy gal; there’s even another world run wholly by Orcs and wait for it…female Orcs!
These attempts still have their problems. At most, they don’t alter the general stereotypes of ACEs so much as muddle them. Still, for someone like me who has at least become aware of his own anti-Orc bias, it’s at least a start. Don’t mean I won’t bash an Orc good with my mace if I see one on the subway! But hey, at least I’ll think about it first.