The question glared up at me from my monitor, cold and accusing. It came from my editor, one of his famous one-line responses to overly long e-mails. In this instance, I’d sent several pages worth of synopsis material on a book I hoped to write, a secondary-world fantasy written from the point-of-view of an orc. “Why orcs?”
Why, indeed? I dithered over the answer. “Because they’re cool!” seemed a little too fanboyish; “why not?” a little too flippant. I realized I had no answer. Truth be told, I didn’t really understand the question. I typed out some predictable response that centered around the purity of artistic vision and the notion that the Muses guided the writer to intriguing subjects. I added a personal bit about how writing an “orc book” had been a lifelong dream of mine, since the creatures of Tolkien first captured my imagination. I thought it a decent answer.
My editor’s reply was a bit longer: “Well and good, but what will you do to make it different? I can go into a bookstore today and buy any number of secondary-world fantasies with orc protagonists. So I ask again: why orcs?”
I felt defeated, deflated. I wrote back: “Let me give it a think and get back to you.”
He had a point, my editor. Orcs as protagonists or anti-heroes was nothing new. Stan Nicholls had gotten there first, in 1999, with the Orcs: First Blood trilogy. Others had followed — some mimicking Tolkien’s creation, others riffing off some variation of the Noble Savage. What would I bring to the table, if I were to write a secondary-world fantasy with an orc protagonist? Nothing, I realized, as I shuffled back to square one.
Up till this point, I never dissected my fascination for orcs. I first encountered them in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings; the chapters in the latter where Merry and Pippin were in the clutches of a band of Uruk-hai, or where Frodo and Sam dealt with the lads of Cirith Ungol, rapidly became my favorite. As a teen, I decided I wanted to write a novel from the orcs point-of-view.
And by the time I had the opportunity, it had been done. Repeatedly. My editor’s question hung over my head like the Sword of Damocles: “what will you do to make it different?” The answer came early one morning, ere sun up. It startled me from my bed with its ferocity, with its need. I jolted awake and reached for pen and paper. How would I make a different sort of orc book? Easy . . . I’d dig up their roots; where my contemporaries spun their tales in fantasy, I’d spin mine in history.
Questions spooled from my brain, most of them following the general tenor of “how on earth will you do that?” Conventional wisdom holds that JRR Tolkien’s orcs, the foot-soldiers of the fallen demi-god Morgoth and his protege, Sauron, were influenced by George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin; etymologically-speaking, the term “orc” arises from a word in Beowulf, orcneas, which meant “evil spirits”:
þanon untydras ealle onwocon
eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas
swylce gigantas þa wið gode wunnon
lange þrage he him ðæs lean forgeald
—Beowulf, Fitt I, vv. 111–14
As I delved deeper, though, I discovered an iceberg waiting beneath the surface, a mass of evidence hidden by the dust of years and the accretions of Time. I found the mythological and historical basis for Tolkien’s orcs — not merely folktales, but hard textual and epigraphical evidence for the existence of a people whose exploits gave rise to countless monstrous legends, from Scandinavia to Morocco. The pieces were scattered by neglect, by simple misunderstanding, and by the disastrous effect of two World Wars. But over the next few years, aided by friends at home and abroad, I assembled enough of the pieces to form a rough sketch.
And in those crude lines I found the kaunar — the prototype for Tolkien’s orcs. More than a simple “orc book”, I found a lost epic of vengeance set against a changing world, the death-song of a forgotten people . . .
Over the next few months, I plan to lay out some of the pieces of research I found — from the work of an Irish saint that has languished in obscurity to the once-lost Dialogues of St. Ansgar (who recorded an eyewitness encounter with a kaunr), from the epigraphic work undertaken by Trinity College to identify the Stone of Skaane and the Trollhattan Stone to the Ellis/Burke expedition to catalog the Orcadii ruins in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains. I hope you’ll check back often . . .
Not long ago, I sent my finished manuscript for A Gathering of Ravens off to my editor. I attached a sheaf of research: citations, clippings, translations, and the like. My cover letter was a simple affair. I wrote: “You asked, once, ‘why orcs?’ Here is my answer . . .”