Early in A Gathering of Ravens, the young Briton, Aidan, and his Danish companion, Njáll – the two travelers who first encounter Grimnir – engage in a conversation about what he is:
“You know,” Aidan said after a moment, “this Grimnir reminds me of your old ship mates. He has that same godless exuberance.”
“We Danes can at least find redemption,” Njáll said. “His folk are beyond even that.”
Aidan’s brow furrowed. “Surely there is no man who is beyond redemption?”
“I told you, that thing is no man.”
“I thought so, too, when I first saw him. He looks like,” the youth struggled to find the words, “like no man I’ve ever seen, but he does have two arms, two legs, and a head as we do. He breathes as we do, eats as we do, drinks, spits, laughs and curses as we do. If we judge him on his appearance, alone, then I would concede your point. But how is he not a man?”
And that is the question that has pervaded the criticism of Orc-themed fiction almost since its inception. How are they different from Humans? What sets them apart? And if they’re close enough to Human for Human readers to understand and sympathize with, then why not just make them Human? Why must they be Orcs?
The answer, I imagine, is as unique as every creator. The Orc is a powerful symbol: the ur-Barbarian, the Other who lives and thrives on the edges of polite society. The Orc is cunning, savage, hard to kill. The Orc represents chaos and change; it threatens the status quo and offers nihilism, dystopia, and rapine as valid alternatives. To a writer, there is much to explore within the context of the Orc.
But, the criticism is largely correct. In Tolkien, for example, the Uruk-hai of Minas Morgul and Cirith Ungol are uncomfortably close analogs to modern men – the type of profane and long-suffering machine-gun fodder JRRT encountered in the trenches during WWI. Contrast this to Mary Gentle’s Grunts, where Orcs are brutish and almost childlike, tusked and greenskinned barbarians with a gallows sense of humor. In Stan Nicholls’ Orcs trilogy, we return to a Tolkien-like sense of purity, with Orcs that are quarrelsome and violent, but functionally no different than their Human enemies. Opposite this portrayal would be Morgan Howell’s vision from the Queen of the Orcs trilogy, where they are Noble Savages patterned after the Iroquois of central New York. Though superficial elements such as appearance differ, every Orc who has thus appeared as a protagonist in fiction is imminently recognizable to readers – as a guttersnipe dough-boy, a slapstick barbarian, an idealized trope, or a CGI’d Human. The Orc is Us, writ large and defined by either subtle characterization or a Pagliaccian sense of the absurd.
Grimnir, of course, is no different. He looks like an Orc: “broad in the chest, his long arms knotted with muscle; bandy-legged, he had a slouch to his shoulders that, when he walked, lent him an aspect of gnarled strength. Tattoos in cinder and woad snaked across his swarthy hide. He glared through a stringy veil of black hair, his locks woven with beads of silver and carved bone. Slitted eyes blazed with unquenchable hate.” His speech is profane and punctuated by curses and guttural noises of derision; his sense of humor is decidedly dark. Cut him and he bleeds black, hemochromatic blood. Beneath all that, however, he is merely a Viking taken to nigh-monstrous extremes; he is what the Úlfhéðnar fears – the berserk who has no Human side. We may not like him, but we must be able to understand him in order to sympathize with him. He must think like Us, to some degree. He must feel and react like Us.
The 146th aphorism from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil strikes at the very heart of Orc fiction: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.” We write the Other, but what we’re really writing is ourselves.