Orcs comprise the bulk of Morgoth and Sauron’s forces whenever the Dark Lords surface to wreak havoc in The Lord of the Rings, and yet — despite their importance in the narrative — J.R.R. Tolkien has never explicitly revealed where they came from.
Were they Eru’s creations, much like the Elves and Men, or did they originate from Melkor himself – whether by his direct hand or as an inadvertent side effect of his evil? While fans have never had any reason to wonder too much about the origins of Orcs — and how they multiply, for that matter, though we have our guesses — it seems that The Rings of Power is going to turn that into an important plot tool.
The dark creatures are on the rise again in the Southlands, led by a person who calls himself Adar. According to Arondir, Adar means “father,” and the villain seems to genuinely care for the Orcs. Adar himself is an Elf, going by his pointy ears, so does that mean the rest of the Orcs were once Elves as well?
To answer that, we’ll have to see what the man himself, Professor Tolkien, had to say on the matter through the many decades of perfecting his mythology and interacting with the ever-expanding fanbase.
Where did Orcs originally come from?
Tolkien originally intended for Morgoth to be the creator of the Orcs from scratch. Indeed, in The Book of Lost Tales, the author claims that Melkor bred the Orcs from the Earth, with their hearts being made of granite and their bodies of slime. But as the legendarium developed and the first seeds of The Silmarillion were planted in Tolkien’s mind, that explanation for the origin of the Orcs lost all of its validity, and for a simple reason.
The Silmarillion makes it clear that Melkor coveted above all else to create life the way Eru did, which is why he scoured the Void to find the Flame Imperishable, the source of the creator’s strength. Melkor was never able to find it, and Eru scolded him by saying that whatever he thinks up will still be a part of Eru’s thoughts and wills.
This also became apparent when another of the Valar— Aulë — created the Dwarves and was ordered by Eru to strike them down. Because without Eru to give them spirit, they’d remain lifeless. The creator showed clemency at the last second, bringing Dwarves to life much like the rest of his Children. But for Morgoth, the desire to create life of his own would remain a half-realized dream.
In Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, Saruman claims that Orcs were Elves once, corrupted by Melkor’s influence when they originally awakened in Middle-earth. That seems to track with what Christopher Tolkien extracted from his father’s notes in The History of Middle-earth, clearly indicating that the Orcs were the twisted offspring of corrupted Elves.
“But of those hapless who were snared by Melkor little is known of a certainty. Yet this is held true by the wise of Eressëa: that all those of the Quendi that came into the hands of Melkor, ere Utumno was broken, were put there in prison, and by slow arts of cruelty and wickedness were corrupted and enslaved. Thus did Melkor breed the hideous race of the Orkor in envy and mockery of the Eldar, of whom they were afterwards the bitterest foes. For the Orkor had life and multiplied after the manner of the Children of Ilúvatar; and naught that had life of its own, nor the semblance thereof, could ever Melkor make since his rebellion in the Ainulindalë before the Beginning. And deep in their dark hearts the Orkor loathed the Master whom they served in fear, the maker only of their misery. This maybe was the vilest deed of Melkor and the most hateful to Eru.”
So, there you have it, folks. While Tolkien scholars have long debated the origins of Orcs due to all the contradictory notes left by the author, it seems most likely that Melkor didn’t create them, but rather twisted the Elves to suit his purposes. Perhaps that’s the secret Adar knows, and that’s the “lie” of which he speaks to Arondir.
One way or another, we’ll soon enough learn the truth of the matter, or at the very least The Rings of Power‘s interpretation of it, as the show continues its run over the next month.