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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Reading Group meeting 22/4/06

On this day....

'All things were now made ready in the City; and there was great concourse of people, for the tidings had gone out into all parts of Gondor....'

The Return of the King, The Steward and the King


Blogger Rymenhild said...

Well, what a surprise! Having arrived at our meeting thinking ‘I wonder how much we’ll actually get out of this topic’ (‘The Uruk hai’ chapter), it was astonishing to hear so much developing. In short, we discovered that orcs are tribal, have a rather complex society, have a definite culture, a subtle command of language – would you believe that? They also exhibit qualities of loyalty, cohesion, prejudice, and self-awareness. And I thought they were just ‘cannon fodder’, or the Middle-earth equivalent of the guys in red jumpers in Star Trek. What a revelation!
The history of orcs goes back, of course, into The Silmarillion, but their presence in the quieter corners of M-e was noted as Golfimbal the orc came off worst in his encounter with Bandobras Took of the Shire. The naming of orcs and Uruks, inluding Ugluk and Grishnakh introduces us to individual orcs who have access to specific forms of knowledge. They are not an undifferentiated Other.
We moved on to distinguish between the different ‘tribes’ of orcs mentioned in the chapter. There are those bearing the livery of the White Hand, who are large and not afraid of the sun, there are those bearing the livery of the Red Eye, some of whom are big and powerful, and there are the northern orcs from the Mines of Moria who don’t seem to bear any particular livery and are distinguished from the others and scorned by them as an undisciplined rabble.
Both the Uruks and Mordor orcs are on a mission. Among the orcs of Mordor and the Uruks of Isengard there is a distinct sense of discipline and authority exercised through knowledge and through a hierarchy of command reinforced with punishments and sanctions. It was suggested that Ugluk and Grishnakh come across as ‘Sergeant Major’ types. Grishnakh’s particular forms of knowledge prompted the question ‘Was Grisknak an observer or participant in the torture of Gollum in Mordor?’ This question arose from observing that this orc seems to know about the Ring as he picks up hints when Merry and Pippin encounter him alone. Both the leading orcs know a certain amount about the background to their mission as well as having the knowledge required to respond to changing circumstances and still carry it out. The Moria orcs don’t seem to have any one in overall command, they don’t appear to know anything useful, and participate simply out of a sense of revenge for their lost Captain. Grishnakh and Ugluk are both following orders from their respective supreme commanders to obtain hobbits and anything they carry.
We noted the definite hierarchical structure within which the orcs operate. The hierarchical structure governing the Mordor orcs is expressly defined with Sauron, the Great Eye at the head, the Nazgul as his lieutenants, and Grishnakh as the leader on the mission. The Isengarders have a less complex hierarchy as Saruman has no intermediate commander.
The Mordor and Isengard orcs show self-possession and can focus with a degree of independent thought on the task they are set. They show self-awareness: Ugluk and Grishnakh declare their own names, take responsibility, and are able to delegate tasks. Their sense if identity, however, is linked to their ‘loyalty’ to or dependence upon their supreme commanders. This is voiced and reinforced in frequent references to ‘The White Hand’ or ‘The Great Eye’, or their locations. In the case of the Isengarders, their ‘loyalty’ is bought with the promise of their preferred food. With the Mordor orcs it seems that the threat of the Nazgul is hanging over them as a spur to their obedience.
Orc/Uruk society is savage and militaristic, but it includes its own kind of vicious culture. Orcs and Uruks have a sense of pleasure, and even fun, although this is perverted, and this, as Ian observed, demonstrates that they have leisure in which to ‘enjoy’ themselves by, for example, tormenting passing hobbits if they get the chance. Their hints at this ‘fun’ to Merry and Pippin show that they have a (nasty) sense of humour – they enjoy winding up their prey, and each other, to judge from the Isengarders jeers at the nothern orcs in the sunshine! They also participate in the making of music, even if it is only of the martial kind. This led to some interesting attempts among us at orc marching songs in the style of the US army!
With no implication of a syntactic link, we noted too that orcs/Uruks achieve a sense of satisfaction from looting and fighting, and have a sense of superiority over the Moria ‘rabble’ which presumably offers satisfaction too. It was also felt that the wolf-riders probably built up relationships with their steeds based on dependence.
In a fascinating discussion on their use of language, we noted that Grishnakh refers to the Nazgul as ‘the apple of the Great Eye’. Ian remarked that this is a term of affection and its use in this context suggests jealously. This may be based on fear but it implies a certain sensitivity, and furthermore, it is a term of affection that is understood by both ‘tribes’, those of Mordor and those of Isengard. In addition, it demonstrates linguistic skill as it is a term expressed in the Common Tongue. The orcs do not only speak their own language. Presumably the Black Speech used in Mordor may not have been the ‘mother-tongue’ of the Isengarders, so they speak the Common Tongue to each other as well as to their prisoners.
Orc language proved to be a stimulating topic, and one close to my own heart in its use of insults, abuse, oaths and curses. We identified specific forms of insults used by and against the 2 tribes. Moria orcs are named as ‘maggots’, and ‘swine’, in this chapter. Isengarders are called ‘muck-rakers’ by Grishnakh, and the Mordor orcs are called ‘apes’, a fitting name for Grishnakh at least given the description of him! The insult ‘maggots’ ‘swine’ and ‘apes’, are the preferred ones, although Merry and Pippin are called ‘vermin’. This language is not just a way of characterising orcish violence, and their debased nature, but gives interesting indications that orcs know the difference.Although the orcs/Uruks may choose to use abusive language to differentiate themselves from the other races of M-e (as the worst kinds of teenagers today choose to swear violently to announce their difference from the adult world), abuse doesn’t work unless it has something good, polite, proper, etc. to exist in opposition to. In addition, given the perverted nature of orcs as former elves, Tolkien would have known the medieval convention that described the Devil as the ‘ape of God’ because of his perverted nature. Having once been the brightest angel, Lucifer in his pride challenged God and was cast out of heaven to become Satan – a perversion of everything he had once been.
The characterisation of orc speech through their use of violent, sadistic, and abusive language is one aspect of their description, but Tolkien does more. He gives us a racial Other defined by it use of language, but also by his descriptions in the narration, and many of these descriptions use terms associated with animals, not just apes, maggots and swine. But this is no simple technique to ‘dehumanise’ the orcs in spite of their facility with language and human-like organisation, for Tolkien gives us animal and human description sometimes in the same sentence, such as ‘The Orc’s clawlike hands’, ‘long arms and hard claws’. There are constant reminders that orcs are something akin to animals, dangerous and unrepdictable, but also disconcertingly like humans in their language, behaviour, and social organisation.
Contrary to my expectations, however, orcs do not relinquish their lives thoughtlessly, since they have healing medicines which work very well, and not just on orcs! This implies a desire to extend life, so they are not just created to be expendable, at least not in their own perception. I asked if, being perversions of elves, they also enjoyed elvish life-span. It was felt that because they are warriors by definition, their life span was likely to resemble mortality.
With a militaristic society and a reasonably advanced culture established, and having tackled life span, we wandered into the murky depths of orc reproduction. It was with some sense of relief that, having noted how Melkor engaged in genetic engineering on captured elves, we opted for the oft-mentioned ‘spawning’. Any other option seemed too vile to contemplate, although Ian perceptively observed that if you had female elves you must have female orcs. I did wonder if they were like female dwarves, but patriarchal oppression and the subjugation of the female in orc culture was far too speculative.
We considered the question of what happened to the orcs when Barad Dur fell, and discovered on the way, thanks to Laura, that Galadriel had gone with Celeborn to cleanse Dol Guldur of its infestation!
Until Saturday afternoon, I would have gone along with Julie’s observations regarding the demons in The Dream of Gerontius, which she notes are ‘eaten up with envy and spite’, and ‘desire the destruction of human souls … simply because it would comfort them in their own misery’. This seemed like a good description of orcs, and to some extent it still is relevant, but as we discovered, they are a much more complex kind of Other than demons, at least as complex as those in Milton’s Pandemonium, and more accessible. Personally speaking, I found it a stimulating afternoon.
Next time we move on to the next chapter ‘Treebeard’. Well, we need a bit of light relief, let’s see if we get it!

6:24 AM  

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