The protagonist of A Gathering of Ravens is an Orc called Grimnir. His people, of course, do not call themselves Orcs – that term was made popular in the early 20th century by British fantasist JRR Tolkien. No, in the tongue of Grimnir’s folk, derived from Old Norse, he is the last of the kaunar (sing. kaunr; “the Plague Folk”). I’m often asked if he looks like the Orcs from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings movies. Well, no, not really. His appearance owes more to Tolkien’s description from Letter 210 (The Letters of JRR Tolkien, H. Carpenter) than to Jackson’s D&D-inspired imagining: “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.” And even that is not quite what Grimnir looks like.
Early on, I was fortuitous enough to tap into the talent and goodwill of some artist-friends who sketched Grimnir for me. By and large, they started with the same description, cribbed from Grimnir’s first appearance in Chapter One of A Gathering of Ravens (read Chapter One in its entirety here).
The figure moved nearer to the circle of light cast by the travelers’ fire. The thunder had faded; the rain was a soft hiss. Weak flares of lightning revealed little more than a twisted silhouette, gnarled limbs bulging with muscle and sinew. “I am called many things, Christ-Dane. Corpse-maker and Life-quencher, the Bringer of Night, the Son of the Wolf and Brother of the Serpent. I am the last of Bálegyr’s brood, called Grimnir by my people.” The flickering firelight threw Grimnir’s features in sharp relief. While it had the same construction as a human face, its planes and angles were long and sharp, vulpine in the half-light of the cave. Coarse black hair, woven with gold beads and discs of carved bone, framed eyes like splinters of red-hot iron, set deep into a craggy brow. He was broad of chest and long of arm, slouch-backed in his posture, with tattoos in cinder and woad snaking across his swarthy hide. Grimnir was clad in antiquated splendor: a sleeveless hauberk of iron rings sewn onto black leather, a kilt of poorly tanned horsehide cut from the flanks of a dappled roan, a cloak of wolf-skins, and arm-rings of gold, silver, and wrought iron. One black-nailed hand rested on the worn ivory hilt of a long seax.
First up was illustrator Michael Mikolajczyk, who drew this decidedly tough customer:
Next, Simon Walpole’s pencil sketch really captures the look of age in Grimnir’s face (he’s nearly 1000 years old when the story begins):
Jason Deem’s brooding sketch has become fixed in my mind as iconic. This is Grimnir emerging from the shadows:
Finally, Zoltan’s Grimnir, skulking through a shallow mere, imbues its subject with the power and movement of fine art:
As you can see, I’ve been lucky to have had artists of great vision to show me the picture behind the words. So as you read A Gathering of Ravens later this month, let these images replace the mental picture you might have of what an Orc should look like. Here is the last of the kaunar, who has plagued mankind since the Elder Days . . .