Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Fantasy Cliché #3 – Orcs!

After a two week diversion, I'm back with the fourth post in my six part series on The Top 5 Clichés in Fantasy Fiction. On the surface, today’s cliché has Tolkien to blame. Ever since the first orc crawled out of Mordor in his 1954 novel The Fellowship of the Ring, these misshapen beasts, in one form or another, seem to have flooded the shelves of fantasy fiction.

Is this where the first orc crawled from?
Of course, before Tolkien called them “orcs” they were the goblins of his 1937 masterpiece The Hobbit. And after that came a small legion of doppelgangers including the Mord Wraiths from Terry Brooks’ Shannara series (1977), Cavewights from Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (1977), Trollocs from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series (1990), and even the Urgals of Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle (2003). What makes these creatures appear cliché is their arguable resemblance to Tolkien’s orcs, but I wonder if that’s fair. For the concept of a “monster” is practically a universal ingredient in fantasy fiction.

This concept existed long before J.R.R. Tolkien. He borrowed heavily from Old English and Norse mythology and admitted that the word “orc” is derived from an Old English word for demon, stemming perhaps from the Latin word “Orcus” and similar to a Norse word for “ogre.” Meanwhile, goblins in English, French, and German folklore were considered to be a type of evil phantom related to gnomes or brownies. More than 1,200 years before the Hobbit, we had the monster Grendel from the epic poem Beowulf. That story, which was based on an older Norse myth, depicted Grendel as an ogre, although some have suggested his mythical origins are more tied to the biblical Nephilim, the giant-like offspring of the unholy union between human women and fallen angels first referenced in Genesis 6:4. And Greek mythology is filled with monsters: the Cyclopses, Gorgons, and Minotaurs are just a few. In other words, the monster in storytelling goes back a quite a ways.

Poor Grendel goes back to anicent times.
The monster is rarely the primary antagonist in fantasy fiction. Rather, it is an embodiment of evil in a broader, collective sense. Perhaps in some stories the monsters are symbols for the real monsters of our world, such as the Nazis during the time when Tolkien began his epic series. Or maybe their presence in literature and mythology is due to the existence in human history of creatures that mankind, at one time, simply did not understand. Michael Crichton proffers this theory in his novel Eaters of the Dead, where a race of Neanderthals coexisted with early medieval men but were perceived by the humans as monsters who lived in darkness and literally ate the dead.
Here's one explanation for the monster in mythology.
Another explanation is that the monster reflects human perceptions or superstitions of demons and other paranormal beings that haunt our imagination. But whatever the reason, the monster in literature has existed since ancient times and has found its incarnation in various forms, the orcs and its fictional offspring being just the most recent examples in the past two or three thousand years. For this reason, I believe the monster, like the archetypes of the Wise Wizard and the Messiah, are here to stay. And in this light, it’s hard to call any of these elements “cliché” once one realizes how fundamental they have been to storytelling throughout the ages.

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