III. On Mordor & Orcs

This text was written for the LARP Utumno and is an interpretation of orcs for that purpose and to give an understanding of the social structure of Mordor. Even though the orcs do not speak the Black Speech in its pure form, they are still the most extensive social entity of the dominion of Sauron.

This text has the following parts:

  1. Mordor as the Machine
  2. On Orcs
    1. Orcs, Goblins and Uruk-hai
    2. The nature of Orcs
    3. Orcish society
      1. The role of vengeance
      2. Wealth and valuables
      3. Orcish aesthetics
    4. Orcs and the sun
    5. The word ‘snaga’

1. Mordor as the Machine
Mordor is the evil of Tolkien in practice, a social machinery designed for a single purpose – to dominate and quell free will, to bind all living things to one power, one single will. Through this centrally governed machinery an extremely vertical power structure has been constructed. An efficient and ruthless bureaucracy (Amûm) makes sure that the servants of Shadow are fitted into the correct pattern to fulfill the purpose and goal of the Machine. There are four different hierarchical levels with the sole ruler at the top, a bureaucracy that governs the administration of the realm and makes sure that all the parts of the Machine works according to plan. Below the administration are the soldiers whose purpose is to crush those who oppose Mordor and at the bottom are the slaves who perform the manual labour required to keep the machine functional. In this dark realm, everyone has a given place, at least in theory, subject to the purpose for which the Machine was created – to bring the entire world into the Shadow and bind it to the Master’s will. The machine is not solely driven by punishment. Those who do a good job and show their worth can be rewarded with power, or rather with fewer people to submit to and more to dominate. But there is no place outside the purpose and goal of the machinery. This means that at the core, all are driven by their fear of the commanders. The purpose of the commanders is to make sure that those below fear the Machine more than they fear the Enemy. Life as a servant of Mordor is a constant struggle. It is all about obeying those above, dominate those below while competing with those on the same level. It is important to always make sure to use others to gain the advantage and avoid being used in turn. The individual servant can never control their own position, neither in the hierarchy or geographically and anyone can be transferred at any time. The only thing left is to make sure that the transfer means an improvement from the previous post.


2. On Orcs
Orcs are rational, egoistical beings whose societies vastly differ from anything made by Man. We may recognise traits similar to our own but they are always from the side that we are ashamed of. The Orc is the utility maximising individual who always and only work for themselves. And Mordor is a machinery where the individual is always inferior to the goal of the corporate. The Machine demands it all and its cogs, the Orcs, constantly try to create space of their own at the expense of each other. In the machinery, all means are allowed but you can never escape the Machine.

Tolkien writes that Orcs “are fundamentally a race of ‘rational incarnate’ creatures, though horrible corrupted, if no more so than many Men to be met today”, Letter 153 (p. 190).

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 (Letter 210).

See also the Wikipedia page on Orcs.

2.1 Orcs, goblins and Uruk-hai

First there is no difference between ‘goblin’ and ‘orc’ – goblin is just a translation from the Common Speech of Middle Earth to English (in Swedish ‘goblin’ is translated to “vätte”). Sometimes Tolkien use the word ‘hobgoblin’ as well. The word ‘orc’ most probably comes from Sindarin ‘orch’ (plural ‘yrch’) and is related to the word ‘uruk’ of the Black Speech (and probably Orcish). It’s also common to make a clear difference between orcs, uruks and uruk-hai but it seems to be that ‘uruk’ is the term for all orcs and the crucial difference is instead between uruk and snaga (slave) as a social relation. In Lord of the Rings chapter “The Land of Shadows” two orcs discuss  “… then it must be a pack of rebel Uruk-hai…”. And this sentence  Appendix F, “Of other races”, “Orcs and the Black Speech”: “… the word uruk [was] of the Black Speech, though it was applied as a rule only to the great soldier-orcs that at this time issued from Mordor and Isengard. The lesser kinds were called, especially by the Uruk-hai, snaga ‘slave’. Still it seems like there are certain breeds of orcs were the uruk-hai was one of them (see my analysis on the ending -hai).

The first Orcs were corrupted Elves*, distorted by Morgoth north of Beleriand in the dungeons of Utumno. During the Second Age, Sauron gathered Orcs in Mordor, just like he did during the Third Age. The Witch King of Angmar also gathered Orcs in his mountain realm in the north of Eriador during the Third Age. Orcs also (probably) gathered in Mirkwood around the fortress of Dol Guldur on behalf of Sauron, then and there known as the Necromancer. In the Misty Mountains the Orcs were led by the Great Goblin, probably under the influence of Dol Guldur. The Orcs of Moria were ruled by Sauron but were relatively free. It might be that the Balrog led them. At the end of the Third Age, Saruman also ruled Orcs in Isengard. Last but not least, the Nazgûl ruled the Orcs of Mordor from Minas Morgul which is the social system described in the Metaphysics part. 

Tolkien had several different theories of the origin of orcs but that is another story.

The local environment would probably also have influenced the social system and general way of life; whether the Orcs lived in forests or mountainous regions, warm or cold climate, what types of enemies were present and not least what kinds of resources the realm they were a part of had. This means that Orcs from different regions may vary as much as Men would.

The social difference between individual Orcs is all about what position the Orc has; this is decided by many different factors. The word ”uruk” may originally mean all Orcs but is used mainly to refer to those Orcs who are higher up in the hierarchy than other Orcs. Those who are lower are called ”snaga” which is often translated as ”slave”. Everyone is someone else’s snaga in Mordor. Even Sauron could be described as the snaga of Morgoth.

2.2 The nature of Orcs
Orcs live lives that can best be described as ”poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, but being corrupted Elves they do not age the way Men do and those who manage to avoid getting themselves killed can survive for centuries. Unlike Elves, who grow more refined with time, Orcs become more twisted, diseased and sometimes driven to madness.

The Orcish psyche is most easily described as rational egoism with a love of destruction and sadism. Orcs prefer to laze about, destroy things and hurt others. To make Orcs cooperate, one has to make them see that they gain more by doing so than doing the opposite. With fear and threats, the cost of not doing unpopular acts becomes too great. Those who do not cooperate are simply punished.

Compared to Elves, Men and Dwarves, Orcs are simply psychopaths. They lack all sense of belonging and solidarity. They are as intelligent as Men but uneducated (unless they are a part of the administration and has been schooled in for example Minas Morgul) and value things differently than Men do.

Orcs may be a race of slaves but their main purpose is war, and because of their destructive nature they are far more suitable soldiers than they are workers. In the world of Tolkien there are two kinds of warriors; the chivalrous ones who fight for the freedom of their people, like the warriors of Gondor. The other kind is like the Orcs, who fight for no cause other than wanton destruction.

2.3 Orcish society
Although the Orcish societies differ a bit, there are certain basic traits that stem from the Orcish psyche. Here we describe the general pattern but also the particular one that govern Orc society under the rule of the Nazgûl.

The selfish and destructive behaviour of Orcs mean that they are incapable of building complex societies of their own. Without a ”dark lord” to unite them they band together in small raiding bands. Orcs are to a higher degree than Men in need of a Leviathan that unites them. Their destructive and selfish nature also means that without such a lord who can force them into constructive work, they cannot survive on their own without neighbouring people whom they can plunder for whatever they need.

Since Orcs lack a sense of solidarity it is much harder for them to cooperate than it is for Men. Orcs only cooperate when they know they stand to gain from it directly. Orc society can be seen as countless complex games where everyone tries to trick everyone and gain the advantage. Every relation between Orcs is a gamble over who can best use the other one. The Uruks indiscriminately abuse snagas but between equals cooperation may flourish, especially when both parts know that the relationship will last for some time. This is crucial for how Orcs act towards each other; how much time will they spend together, how long will the game last? In Mordor, Amûm* makes the Orcs cooperate by making things worse for them if they do not. Only in exceptional cases are rewards of any kind used. The lash is the main tool and few carrots are handed out, not least because those who can keep them to themselves also do so at every opportune moment. When Orcs live beneath a master who creates a hierarchy where physical strength is not the only means to power, like during the reign of the Nazgûl through Amûm, a number of other ways to exert power are developed and the games between the Orcs become increasingly complex.

*Amûm roughly means ”administration” or ”bureaucracy”, the word comes from the Hurrian language.

This is strengthened by the option to report other Orcs for possible mistakes and thus use Amûm’s power for one’s own sake. Cunning becomes as great a weapon as brute force. In this way, various complex bartering networks have emerged. With neither money nor trust, the exchange of wares, information or simple services is the only existing economy. This means that in lasting groups a certain group feeling that imitates solidarity may grow, but this is actively opposed by Amûm by regularly splitting the groups apart by transferring the members to different places. Even if the group were sent intact to a certain outpost it is difficult to keep it together without reason.

2.3.1 The role of vengeance
One such reason is protection. A group that stays together and works as one becomes stronger than each individual member. This means that Orcs often form gangs, or ‘lurg’ in Orcish, in which the individuals cooperate and there is some measure of trust. The main purpose of these lurgs is that the members watch each others’ backs. For this to work as intended, the lurg must show clearly that it will not accept the abuse of any of its members, which means that injustices are avenged. Amûm disapproves of this kind of justice since it forms an alternative to the power of the Administration. Therefore, revenge must be meted out discreetly under the rule of the Nazgûl. (An efficient way to revenge is by making Amûm do it for you unawarely.) This culture of revenge may explain why relatively free Orcs are willing to sacrifice much to avenge fallen leaders, which is described in both The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings where Moria-Orcs pursue the respective fellowships. Gimli also mentions that this is regular Orc behaviour; ”Orcs will often pursue foes for many leagues into the plain, if they have a fallen captain to avenge” (The Lord Of The Rings, ”Lothlorien”).

2.3.2 Wealth and valuables
In Mordor there is no right but that of the strongest, and the strongest is Amûm. Property rights do not exist. Whatever belongings one has are those one can defend, which in practice means what one can carry or at best force someone else to carry. This means that the value of things is determined by their usefulness. Gold, silver and other things that are often treasured by Men are more or less worthless for an Orc.

Money and such might be useful in the borderlands where trade with Men is possible. But why trade with Men when you can simply take things from them?

One can imagine that money becomes relevant when Orcs associate with Mannish allies of Mordor. But that requires a rather sophisticated Orc who is given time to learn what money and similar valuables mean for the race of Men. The most valuable things for an Orc in Mordor are drugs and poisons; unusual, practical, easy to carry and easily hidden. Armour and weapons are valuable as well. Tools can be practical but those who carry them may be forced to use them. Tools are distributed by Amûm but are not cared for the way weapons and armour are since they are not considered particularly valuable; this leads to a constant lack of tools. Other than that, immaterial things have the greatest value. Information is worth more than gold in Mordor, not only about other Orcs but also about what orders have been given. Managing to get recruited into the right company or avoiding a particularly bad mission is paramount for those who wish to survive within the machinery of Mordor. The most efficient tool that Amûm has to wield apart from lashes and threats is the promise of a better position. The better your position, the more information you get. A higher rank is not just about pure formal power; the informal power that comes with the position is equally important.

When lacking an official position, a deedy Orc can always try to get information through connections associated with Amûm. Either by becoming an agent or bartering with one. Even though information is valuable and important, this does not mean that muscles and steel does not have their place as well. But without cunning even the strongest Orc will remain a mere beast of burden.

2.3.3 Orcish aesthetics
Orcish equipment is often described as ugly but practical and very sturdy. Mass production is the rule. There does not seem to be much in the way of adornment, which suits their rational mindset well. But they seem to have some measure of aesthetic sense even so; during the search for Merry and Pippin after they were captured by the Orcs, Gimli finds an Orc blade which is described as having been “shaped like a hideous head with squinting eyes and a leering mouth” (The Two Towers, “The White Rider”). Another case is the statues in Ithilien which the Orcs have disfigured and distorted into grotesque monsters.

This shows that Orcs likes more than simple destruction. They also seem to appreciate what looks terrifying and evil. This could be explained by looking at the Orcish culture where successful threats are associated with power and thus it is rational to look scary and intimidating. With time, this turned into a form of cultural expression among those with more power.

One could also argue that destruction is a form of creation. In Ainulindalë (the creation myth) Melkor tries to bring dissonance into the music of the Ainur which in turn creates the world. His contribution is not welcomed because it is not a part of what Eru (the supreme god) thinks should be included in the song. In the long term this leads to Melkor’s fall and evolvement into the enemy of the world. But his dissonance echoes through the entire mythology and is very much inherited by the Orcs. From an Orcish point of view, there is something fundamentally wrong with everything made by the Free Peoples which can only be corrected through dissonance.

From another, more modern point of view, destruction and creation are not each other’s’ opposites. From the ashes of chaos, new things can rise. Through destruction, something old can give its place to something new, for example through a revolution.

Simply put, destruction is a part of the nature of Orcs and they seem to enjoy it.

2.4 Orcs and the sun
It’s a widely spread misunderstanding that Orcs can not handle sunlight in the same way that trolls can not. It is an extension of Morgoth’s wish to cover all of Arda in darkness that echo down to the very lowest level of the servants of evil. In The Two Towers is described how Saruman’s Isengarders are better fit to travel in sunlight than those from Moria or Mordor. The latter, especially those from the mines of Moria, have spent their entire lives in compact darkness and are not accustomed to the light of day.

2.5 The word ‘snaga’
The word snaga is very important. It is used in The Lord of The Rings and is central to the culture. As previously stated, everyone is someone’s snaga in Mordor. Together with ‘uruk’ the concept of ‘snaga’ displays the basic social order in Mordor. Snaga is often translated as ‘slave’ but we consider that to be misleading, at least on a cursory note. The word ‘slave’ implies that the person in question is a ware to be traded or sold at a market while ‘snaga’ is more of a dynamic relational position which changes depending on who you associate with. A snaga is simply someone who is below you in rank and is better translated with ‘spawn’ (Swedish “yngel”) or ‘lowlife’ or something else that indicates someone of lower standing and less worth. In certain contexts, snaga could be translated as ‘servant’. This would then indicate that the person has been a snaga long enough to become someone’s personal servant. The difference between a servant and a snaga is of course that the servant cannot be sold and always have the option to leave their position but then lose the pros that came with it. The Orc who is uruk would then be translated as ‘master’ but one should keep in mind that this word only applies to Orcs and only in relations to snaga.

But the translation of snaga to ‘slave’ is only problematic on the face of it. That one can’t sell things does not mean that there is no ownership in Mordor (see Wealth and valuables abow). One can only own that which one can control. If you can control another Orc, then that Orc is your snaga and thus the word could be translated as ‘slave’ but it requires a certain insight into the societal structure of Mordor. The translation of snaga as ‘slave’ then shows how social life in Mordor works. Our conclusion is to simply not translate the word at all, but at the same time reflect on what it means.