The Terminal Orc
Middle-earth and the theology of
If the powers of Morgoth and the nature of the Elves gave Tolkien endless trouble in preparing The Silmarillion for publication, the problem of the Orcs nearly frightened him into giving up the attempt. How this happened sheds light on some interesting facets of Tolkien’s creative process, the mentality of his critics, and the ethics of fantasy in general.
C.S. Lewis famously said that nobody could influence Tolkien — ‘you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch’ — but in fact this was not true. Tolkien’s mind soaked up influences like a sponge, and he nearly always had a strong reaction to criticism, especially adverse criticism. What you could not do was influence him in a direction of your choosing, or predict how your criticism would affect him.
In The Lays of Beleriand, the third volume of Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth, there is an exceptionally interesting section in which Lewis dissected the first thousand-odd lines of Tolkien’s immensely long (and never finished) Lay of Leithian. Lewis was a superbly able literary critic, but his poetic talents (which were considerable) did not tend in the same direction as Tolkien’s at all. Lewis’s forte was the English poetry of the sixteenth century and thereabouts, on which he was one of the world’s leading authorities, as Tolkien was on Old and Middle English. If he had had a closer affinity with Tolkien’s muse, his criticism might have been immensely destructive. Instead he followed his own ear for verse, and the emendations he suggested were almost invariably unsuited to Tolkien’s style. Tolkien could accept the criticisms without any temptation to adopt the suggested verses. A typical example occurs in lines 123–126. Here are Tolkien’s original lines:
swift ruin red of fire and sword
leapt forth on all denied his word,
and all the lands beyond the hills
were filled with sorrow and with ills.
Lewis objected, and rightly, to the omission of that from the second line in order to salvage the metre:
The relative understood. I suspect both the construction and the word denied, neither of which has the true ring. H reads:
And ruin red of fire and sword
To all that would not hail him lord
Came fast, and far beyond the hills
Spread Northern wail and iron ills.
This is better, perhaps, but it is not Tolkien. He must have snorted vigorously at ‘Northern wail and iron ills’ when he read it. Tolkien was an exceptionally ‘tough-minded’ author, in the original sense of the word: that is, he was concerned not with vague generalities, but with specific and concrete details, and would not be bamboozled by plausible handwaving. Lewis’s phrase is emotionally strong but literally meaningless. The criticism was valid, but the suggested cure was worse than the disease. When Tolkien revised the poem in light of Lewis’s comments, he rewrote the lines this way:
With fire and sword his ruin red
on all that would not bow the head
like lightning fell. The Northern land
lay groaning neath his ghastly hand.
This removes the original difficulty without introducing a lot of claptrap about directional crying and sick metal. Neath is slightly precious, a quality Tolkien had not yet fully outgrown, though he had come far since the days of ‘Goblin Feet’. In the late 1940s, after receiving another detailed and strenuous criticism of the Lay, Tolkien returned to it and substantially rewrote the opening and various other sections. The lines that correspond to those above reached this final form:
Slowly his shadow like a cloud
rolled from the North, and on the proud
that would not yield his vengeance fell;
to death or thraldom under hell
all things he doomed: the Northern land
lay cowed beneath his ghastly hand.
So the affectation of neath and the borderline cliché of ruin red are purged.
After The Lord of the Rings was published, Tolkien received some letters from readers of a theological bent, good Catholics or at least good Christians, who objected strongly to some details about the Elves and Orcs. In particular they objected to the idea, then present in Tolkien’s unpublished (but privately circulated) texts, that the Elves were subject to reincarnation if slain. Tolkien at first gave them short shrift, saying that even if reincarnation was not a mode employed by God in this world, that did not make it inconceivable that He might use it in another world, on creatures not strictly human. But in the end he re-examined the whole question of Elvish incarnation, decided that it did not bear close scrutiny, and threw the idea out. For those Elves who had necessarily (because it was already established in the published tales) to return from the halls of Mandos, he posited a mechanism analogous to the resurrection of the dead in Christian doctrine.
The problem of the Orcs was not so easily resolved. In 1954, Peter Hastings, manager of a Catholic bookshop in Oxford, wrote to Tolkien suggesting that he had ‘overstepped the mark in metaphysical matters’. Most of his objections had in fact already been dealt with in work that Hastings had not yet read, but he put his finger on the one that would never be adequately resolved: the origin of the Orcs. He did not believe that evil could create, and still less could it create living creatures with self-awareness and souls; and he was among those who were disturbed by the idea of a rational incarnate creature that appeared to be totally irredeemable. Tolkien replied, in part:
Treebeard does not say that the Dark Lord ‘created’ Trolls and Orcs. He says he ‘made’ them in counterfeit of certain creatures pre-existing. There is, to me, a wide gulf between the two statements, so wide that Treebeard’s statement could (in my world) have possibly been true. It is not true actually of the Orcs — who are fundamentally a race of ‘rational incarnate’ creatures, though horribly corrupted, if no more so than many Men to be met today. . . .
Suffering and experience (and possibly the Ring itself) gave Frodo more insight; and you will read in Ch. I of Book VI the words to Sam. ‘The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the Orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them.’ (Letters, no. 153
This answer contented Tolkien for that time, and it seems to have contented Mr. Hastings. But the objections kept coming from other quarters. Why would God (or, to give him his Elvish name, Eru) permit the Dark Lord to so degrade God’s children that they would pass beyond the reach of redemption or even of conscience? Tolkien tried various ways to answer that, but none quite satisfied him. At one point he experimented with the idea that the Orcs were animals, perhaps with an admixture of Elvish or Mannish genetic material, bred by Morgoth until they were sufficiently intelligent to have the power of speech and to at least mimic some of the operations of human thought. Or perhaps they were biological automatons, in the state Tolkien envisioned for the Dwarves before Eru gave them true life: puppets of their maker, moved only by his will, and collapsing into insensate matter when his power was removed from them. But that would not explain how the Orcs could fight among themselves. Clearly Tolkien was influenced here by his private critics, if not by his public ones. He was influenced almost to the point of paralysis; his creative faculties very nearly dried up.
In fact, the Orcs represent a detail of the Problem of Evil that Tolkien never quite brought himself to face. This problem has dogged humans since the beginning of recorded history, and probably longer, and we have been shirking it just as long. If you care to accept the account in the Book of Genesis, both the problem and the shirking began when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. Both were particularly acute in the twentieth century, and above all in the age of horrors that encompassed the two World Wars. Trench warfare, poison gas, concentration camps, massacres, Communism, Fascism, the OGPU and Gestapo, the Rape of Nanking, Munich, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Barbarossa, Pearl Harbor, Auschwitz, Dresden, Hiroshima: these are not the extraordinary things of that epoch, but the entirely typical ones. As William Golding put it in his essay ‘Fable’:
I must say that anyone who passed through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.
This sounds like opinion, but it is a reasonably precise statement of fact. To any great danger, a human being can have one of three responses: fight, flight, or surrender. Anybody can list the ways that citizens and statesmen, nations and cultures, responded to the crises of those days. Authors and artists did the same, less directly, through the medium of their work.
Ezra Pound surrendered by doing barefaced propaganda for the Nazis, and was almost hanged as a war criminal. Bertolt Brecht was luckier in his choice of masters: he surrendered to Stalin, and the Soviet régime kept him physically safe until he died. Sartre surrendered, not to any particular dictator, but in general; he ‘solved’ the problem of Evil by denying the existence of Good. According to his brand of existentialism, the only thing that mattered was ‘self-affirmation’ in the face of a meaningless universe. If you saw a beggar in the street and gave him money, that was one way to affirm your own existence; if you ran him over on purpose with your car, that was another way; and one affirmation was just as good as the other. ‘Wrong in the head’ is surely a rather mild way to describe the man who could invent such a philosophy.
Others chose flight, which in those days meant making themselves blind to nearly everything that was going on around them. James Joyce sat out the First World War in the safety of neutral Switzerland, writing an obsessively detailed book about an insurance salesman in Dublin in 1904. As the next war approached, Henry Miller proclaimed himself indifferent to the impending fall of Western civilization, and dived joyfully into a wallow of mysticism and pornography. In between, the nineteen-twenties were the heyday of ‘Art for Art’s sake’. As Orwell said in ‘Inside the Whale’:
Our eyes are directed to Rome, to Byzantium, to Montparnasse, to Mexico, to the Etruscans, to the subconscious, to the solar plexus — to everywhere except the places where things are actually happening.
J.R.R. Tolkien chose to fight.
Some philosophers have tried to fight by constructing purely naturalistic systems of ethics that would somehow account for and incorporate the moral intuitions that most humans have in common. Of these, Stoicism was the most successful in ancient times; in modern times, Utilitarianism. But none of these attempts really succeeded, for they did not take the fight to the hottest part of the battleground. Most of us will accept certain ethical propositions as matters of principle, when we are safe and comfortable and have no difficult decisions to make. But as soon as it becomes difficult to follow the rules, our courage fails us. We flinch from the fight, we make exceptions and excuses, and retire from the field behind a smokescreen of casuistry.
What all the great secular systems of ethics have in common (apart from their content, in which all of them are remarkably similar) is the fewness of their followers. It takes considerable intelligence, education, and willpower to be a successful Stoic, or Utilitarian, or to live strictly by the ethical precepts of Confucius or Buddha. In a sense it is true that Good can be identified with enlightened self-interest; the trouble is that so very few people are enlightened. Most of us do not have the intellectual prowess for that kind of enlightenment, and those who need it most do not even desire it.
Napoleon spoke of ‘two o’clock in the morning courage’, the cold courage that is trained into a man’s bones and will allow him to act bravely in no matter what adversity. Hardly anybody is born with such courage, and most people never acquire it. To truly follow a purely secular ethical code we need two o’clock in the morning enlightenment: the ability to see, through the clamour of our desires and fears, what is the wise thing to do in each situation we encounter. And we need the courage as well, or we will not be able to go through with some of the actions we know are necessary. But we need to have a good-sized portion of enlightenment before we can even understand the need to be enlightened. Not many of us get that far without the sanctions of some religion or other. In this sense it is quite true that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. It is not the only possible beginning, but even today it remains the usual one.
Worse yet, there is always the retreat into Existentialism or nihilism. If there is not a God, or some other force that gives the moral law a basis for objective existence, we can solve the Problem of Evil by wishing it away. Many modern persons — I have known a fair collection — deny the existence of evil, which means also denying the existence of good. It is very fashionable to talk about ‘shades of grey’, and castigate others for ‘black-and-white’ thinking. To a certain degree this is a valid criticism. But many persons talk and act as if everything were the same shade of grey. As I said not long ago, all hats are grey in the dark; and this solution reminds me of a moderately old joke:
Q. How many Microsoft programmers does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. None. Bill Gates defined darkness as the industry standard.
If you take it for granted that all humans will follow their basest impulses, you need not worry about the Problem of Evil. But then you have to worry about the Problem of Good, for in fact people have an annoyingly persistent way of acting according to something that can only be called conscience. We so often do what is right, even when it is not expedient; and still more often we wish to do what is right, and fail to do it, and feel ashamed. There is a kind of shame that has nothing to do with morality. A man may boast about how fast he can run, and feel ashamed when he loses a foot-race. That is easy to explain. We all feel ashamed when we lose face before our peers. But when a man who makes no boast does a thing he believes to be wrong, he feels ashamed even when nobody catches him. He loses no face, except to himself; but that is enough. He desires goodness as the other man desires speed; and any theory of ethics or psychology that does not account for this desire is hopelessly incomplete.
There are some people, it is true, who do not desire goodness, and who have no evident capacity to feel ashamed of their actions as long as their actions are successful. A man who loves speed will not feel ashamed of winning a race, unless he has done it by cheating. A sociopath who loves speed will not be ashamed no matter how he wins. I have known a number of sociopaths, including one who was successfully treated and apparently cured; you might say I have had an opportunity to examine the Orcish mindset firsthand. The problem of the Orcs is not so theoretical as Tolkien’s critics made out, and Tolkien might have profited by examining some of our Orc-like brothers and sisters himself.
There are two close portrayals of Orcs in The Lord of the Rings. The second, the encounter between Shagrat and Gorbag outside Shelob’s lair, is a masterpiece of satire. These two Orcs are not quite psychopaths, for they have moral standards of a kind; they are just comically incapable, as Tom Shippey points out, of applying them to their own actions. After the Orcs capture the unconscious Frodo, one of their captains makes a clearly moralizing remark to the other:
‘It’s my guess you won’t find much in that little fellow,’ said Gorbag. ‘He may have had nothing to do with the real mischief. The big fellow with the sharp sword doesn’t seem to have thought him worth much anyhow — just left him lying: regular elvish trick.’
Regular elvish trick: in other words, the sort of thing the enemy does, but that our side would never stoop to. There is no denying that he disapproves of abandoning one’s comrades in that way. But Shagrat knows something Gorbag does not: Frodo isn’t dead!
‘Garn!’ said Shagrat. ‘She’s got more than one poison. When she’s hunting, she just gives ’em a dab in the neck and they go limp as boned fish, and then she has her way with them. D’you remember old Ufthak? We lost him for days. Then we found him in a corner; hanging up he was, but he was wide awake and glaring. How we laughed! She’d forgotten him, maybe, but we didn’t touch him — no good interfering with Her.’
As Shippey observes: ‘What can one say but “regular orcish trick”?’ And Gorbag, who was quick enough to disapprove of Sam’s abandoning Frodo, has no word to say against Shagrat for abandoning Ufthak. Instead he starts joking about all the jolly psychological tortures he can put Frodo through without violating the letter of Sauron’s order that all captives are to be kept safe and intact. Orcs have morals; they just happen to be coupled with a hypocrisy so perfect that it is essentially unconscious. Morals are a stick to beat their enemies with, never a means to regulate their own behaviour.
The other major appearance of individual Orcs occurs earlier in The Two Towers, when the Uruk-hai capture Merry and Pippin. This chapter sheds less light on Orcish ethics, but it does let fall one beam that shines fairly on the target:
‘My dear tender little fools,’ hissed Grishnákh, ‘everything you have, and everything you know, will be got out of you in due time. . . . What do you think you’ve been kept alive for? My dear little fellows, please believe me when I say that it was not out of kindness: that’s not even one of Uglúk’s faults.’
Most of us, probably, have met persons who talked like that. We speak of being kind to a fault, but it is not difficult to find people who think kindness is always and in itself a fault. There are those who think kindness is merely a form of weakness, and that if you do not choose to inflict suffering on others, it is only because you lack the strength to do so, or at best because you are busy with other things. In his reply to Peter Hastings, Tolkien points out that his Trolls, too, lack the faculty of kindness or pity, even though they temporarily refrain from doing Bilbo all the harm they might do:
I might not (if The Hobbit had been more carefully written, and my world so much thought about 20 years ago) have used the expression ‘poor little blighter’, just as I should not have called the troll William. But I discerned no pity even then, and put in a plain caveat. Pity must restrain one from doing something immediately desirable and seemingly advantageous. There is no more ‘pity’ here than in a beast of prey yawning, or lazily patting a creature it could eat, but does not want to, since it is not hungry. Or indeed than there is in many of men’s actions, whose real roots are in satiety, sloth, or a purely non-moral natural softness, though they may dignify them by ‘pity’s’ name.
I have known men and women with exactly that kind of non-moral natural softness, who would not hurt a fly, not because they have any pity for flies, but merely because they get no pleasure and see no advantage in doing so. And I have known some who did get pleasure from cruelty, and though I could not say it of my own knowledge, I am sure some of them picked the wings off flies. If they did not, it was because they had moved on to bigger game.
The genuine sociopath, however, while still remaining a full member of the human species, goes one step further than Tolkien’s Orcs. Sociopaths as a rule do not even use moral standards as a stick to beat their (absent) enemies with. They do not disapprove of the evil that others do, but of the softness and weakness that others show when they refrain from doing evil. ‘You should have kicked him when he was down’ is about as close to a moral judgement as some of them ever come. Of course they have learnt to mimic the language of morality and even of contrition, because they know that it is an effective way to manipulate the emotions of others. All successful sociopaths are manipulative. A human being cannot live entirely alone, except by overwhelming effort and stern asceticism, neither of which commends itself to the sociopathic mind. And if you are to live among people, you must either have a genuine fellow-feeling for them, or be able to fool them into doing your will. Mark Twain patterned Huckleberry Finn’s father after one of the town drunkards in the Hannibal of his boyhood, and portrayed the technique with lapidary precision:
When he got out the new judge said he was a-going to make a man of him. . . . After supper he talked to him about temperance and such things till the old man cried, and said he’d been a fool, and fooled away his life; but now he was a-going to turn over a new leaf and be a man nobody wouldn’t be ashamed of, and he hoped the judge would help him and not look down on him. The judge said he could hug him for them words; so he cried, and his wife she cried again; pap said he’d been a man that had always been misunderstood before, and the judge said he believed it. . . .
Then they tucked the old man into a beautiful room, which was the spare room, and in the night some time he got powerful thirsty and clumb out on to the porch-roof and slid down a stanchion and traded his new coat for a jug of forty-rod, and clumb back again and had a good old time. . . . And when they come to look at that spare room they had to take soundings before they could navigate it.
The judge he felt kind of sore. He said he reckoned a body could reform the old man with a shotgun, maybe, but he didn’t know no other way.
Old Finn was a fine example of a sociopath. He said a lot of phrases that had no meaning to him, simply because he knew the judge wanted to hear them, and he got a bed for the night and a new suit of clothes out of it; the clothes were swappable for whisky; the bed, once he had slept, furnished him the amusement of wrecking it. One could venture the hypothesis that his alcoholism had destroyed the faculty of empathy in him, either through brain damage directly, or because his craving for drink was so strong that he would do anything to satisfy it. But it is highly probable that he never had much of that faculty in the first place.
We know that certain kinds of brain injury can induce sociopathy or states similar to it. Prefrontal lobotomy, that fine psychiatric treatment from the Age of Horrors, often produced radical changes of personality in its victims. One often reported was a loss of empathy and conscience. Fortunately, a still more common effect of lobotomy was listlessness and loss of initiative. A person without a conscience is little danger to others if she has not the energy to go out and damage them.
But more specific techniques were developed for destroying small portions of the prefrontal lobe, in the hopes (never quite fulfilled) of producing particular changes in behaviour. It would in principle be possible to permanently damage the part of the brain responsible for the sense of moral obligation without taking away the subject’s energy and initiative. Michael Crichton’s early novel The Terminal Man postulates just such an operation. When that story begins, Harry Benson is already suffering from an acute disinhibitory lesion, which is a real and recognized form of brain injury; it causes him to have episodes of random violence, with amnesia afterwards. He is treated by inserting electrodes into the brain, so that selected neurons can be stimulated to damp out the impulses caused by the lesion. Of course, since Crichton is a technological horror writer by trade, the operation subtly fails and ends up making matters much worse, turning Benson into a serial killer. This is a worst-case scenario, but a possible one; Crichton did his homework on the medical issues involved. A variant of the procedure is actually used today as a treatment for severe depression in certain patients who do not respond to medication, but the specific electrical stimulus used, and the part of the brain to which it is applied, make it impossible to produce the kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde side-effect that Crichton portrayed.
Now, if a carefully plotted alteration to the brain can produce a Terminal Man, why not a Terminal Orc? Saruman seems to have been a genetic engineer of sorts: it is fairly clear that he cross-bred Men with Orcs, producing hybrids like Bill Ferny’s friend at Bree, the ‘squint-eyed southerner’, and also the Uruks of Isengard who could endure full daylight without debility. One can easily imagine that Morgoth had the power (and his minions the skill) to alter the genes of Men or even Elves in such a way that the prefrontal lobe would develop abnormally. The brain of such a modified Man simply would not contain the centre where most of our moral awareness takes place; he might be as incapable as any sociopath of developing a conscience. This is a horrifying thought, but hardly more so than the forced lobotomization of thousands in our own history. That was going on in the years when Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, and although of course it never turned humans into Orcs, it did quite often make them more Orc-like.
Tolkien came in for a good deal of criticism from Christian readers for making the Orcs intrinsically evil, either without souls, or with souls permanently fallen and incapable of being saved. This is probably an unfair criticism, though Tolkien felt the force of it in his last years, and tried hard to answer it. Perhaps there is no good answer. But he can at least be acquitted of the specifically theological charge against him. It was said that God would never permit anyone to produce a race of sentient beings that were naturally and incurably evil. But God has already permitted us to produce individual humans of a very similar kind.
It is a very difficult thing to save the soul of a sociopath, or even to explain the idea of souls to one. The cured sociopath whom I knew was treated by carefully and rationally teaching him the value of seeking mutual benefit in his interactions with others. He came to understand that it was more profitable, and a lot less dangerous, to barter with people than simply to take advantage of them. (The dangers were obvious, for at least two people had tried to kill him. It was this, he told me, that made him seek treatment and change his way of living.) In trying to think of what he might offer them in exchange for the things he wanted, he grew to have some appreciation of other people’s wants and needs, and some of the capacity for empathy that he had never developed by nature. If it was not empathy that he developed, it was a calculated and habitual imitation of it, and that may be a distinction without a difference. But as far as I know, he never took up any kind of religious belief, though he adopted elements of Zen philosophy and practised some techniques of meditation. The idea of the soul, let alone the Christian idea of saving it, was, I believe, a closed book to him.
On a less intractable level — the level of software rather than hardware, as we say nowadays — there has been a whole movement to deprive people of their moral compass by teaching them from childhood that all moral standards are merely expressions of personal emotion, that they are not binding on anyone and have no general validity. Lewis wrote at length about this movement in The Abolition of Man, and I will not repeat his arguments here. It is sufficient to say that education, too, can do much to make Men into Orcs. It would no doubt be possible to combine methods. My friend the ex-sociopath was able to overcome his dysfunction because he was carefully taught the principles of ethics in terms that his mind could accept and understand. But if some Dark Lord or White Wizard began to breed potential sociopaths on purpose, and then reared them in a culture designed to keep them from all knowledge of ethics, it would be very difficult indeed to rescue them from Orc-hood.
Difficult, but perhaps not impossible. One thing that Tolkien’s detractors on this point tend to forget is that in Middle-earth in the Third Age, no one’s soul was saved. By setting his story in a remote period of our own past, at least as an imaginative conceit, he also set it in a period where the Christian salvation he devoutly believed in had not yet come to pass. Even the best of his mortal characters — Hobbits, Rohirrim, Men of Gondor — were in effect virtuous pagans, vaguely aware (as were the Stoics) of the existence of God, but having no theology, no sacred texts, no traditions of worship. Their homage to Eru was tendered in a purely negative manner, by resisting the shadow of Sauron with all their might — or else it was not, as in the case of Denethor. As for Elves, Dwarves, and Wizards, they did not have souls in the Christian sense of the word.
So what then of the Orcs? They were as pagan as the Men of the Third Age, but decidedly not virtuous. Yet if Morgoth and Sauron had corrupted them into that form of body and mind, their lack of virtue was not their own fault but the fault of their corrupters. Some theologians, and some religions, say that God judges souls according to the use they have made of their opportunities. Tolkien believed as much. Let us, then, try to look at the Orcs from something like his theological point of view. Perhaps there were Orcs who had vague stirrings of real conscience, who actually tried sometimes not to do the things they scorned as ‘typical elvish tricks’. Perhaps there were Orcs who were better than Heinrich Himmler, or even as saintly as Al Capone. If so, they might have been rewarded according to their measure; there might even be a sort of Heaven for Orcs who did what little they could to resist the evil of their masters. But it would be a long and tedious job to housebreak an Orc’s soul for paradise. The Orcish version of Purgatory is not a place I would ever wish to see.
28 December 2006