Thursday, June 12, 2014

EconomOrcs: A Guest Post by Cowboy

by Cowboy

"Intro to Economics" textbooks usually include excerpts from the essay "I, Pencil" to illustrate just how complicated the market system is, and how most of it occurs behind the scenes. Unfortunately for modern authors, this invisibility means we never stop to think about things. In our world, flying fresh berries from Chile in December happens. Just two hundred years ago, when the three weeks the berries were ripe in your area were over, that was it for fresh berries that year. Does it matter? If the authors aren't stopping to think about how the Medieval lords would obtain fresh berries in December, odds are the readers aren't either. (And the ones who do think about it are the ones who won't be happy no matter what you do.)

So why bother thinking about markets and economics at all? Why bother if nearly everyone will just suspend disbelief and move on? Because economics shapes a culture, and culture shapes character. Most authors spend enormous amounts of time developing their characters, but they end up creating Americans (or whatever their own nationality is) in an environment completely removed from the one that creates and sustains Americans.

In Fellowship (movie), there's a scene in which Sam stops because he is journeying farther than he's ever gone before. From modern eyes, that's just Sam as firmly rooted, the homebody, the gardener. Prior to the 20th century, however, most people lived their entire lives within 20 miles of their place of birth. It wasn't just that Sam was stepping outside his comfort zone, he -- and nearly everyone he knew -- had never been farther than that either. That was a larger step than we can really comprehend.

Sam steps out of his comfort zone.

And now, four paragraphs in here, we turn to the orcs (I’m referring to orcs and goblins collectively as orcs). I’m going to leave aside the orcs of Mordor, who Tolkien tells us in The Two Towers (book) were supplied by vast slave plantations south of Mordor, and the Uruk Hai of Isengard, as Saruman also had human subjects to engage in agriculture. What about the orcs of the Misty Mountains and of Moria? How did they survive? The basic economic problem is scarcity -- that there's not enough of what we want and need to go around. How do the orcs solve that problem?

We see no evidence (in either the books or movies) that the orcs can or do engage in any kind of agriculture or herding. Their hatred of daylight and the large eyes of the Moria and Misty Mountain orcs would indicate that they're also primarily nocturnal, which doesn't fit well with agriculture. By process of elimination, then, the orcs must be hunters and gatherers (though I’d wager primarily hunters).

The hunter/gatherer lifestyle tells you several things about the orcs:

First, they wouldn't normally wear armor and carry the weapons you see in the movies. The armor would get caught on everything and scare away the game.

Second, their hunting weapons would be much smaller and lighter. They'd probably be carrying slings, slingshots, blow guns, bows and arrows, and small game gigs.

From the first two points, we learn something about the conflict between the elves and the orcs. Unless the orcs are specifically armed for war, they are at the mercy of the elves when out hunting. Orcs and elves alike would be armed similarly lightly, but the orcs would lack all the attendant advantages of being an elf (or a Ranger, for that matter). In addition to the prospect of loot, the orc raiding parties serve to drive the elves off the orc hunting grounds. The orcs have to make war or they'll be slaughtered piecemeal.

Third, hunter/gatherers are semi-nomadic. They move into an area until they've exhausted the natural crops and the wild game has fled, and then they move on. We see a bit of this in The Hobbit and The Fellowship (books), but the characters in the books don't understand what's going on. They talk about orcs moving into new areas and see it as part of a growing threat, but they don't realize that the barrens that they walk through are now relatively devoid of orcs. The barrens were not naturally barren (there are many references in the books to previous habitation), it's that the orcs have exhausted the resources of that area and moved on. The orcs aren't so much a growing threat as a shifting one. This also has parallels in history, as the peoples of Europe faced wave after wave of nomadic tribesmen from Central Asia, but (unbeknownst to the Europeans), each left grazed-out rangeland behind them.

Hordes of Moria orcs menacing the Fellowship.

However, here we hit a problem. Hunter gatherers live in small(ish) groups ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred because any given area only has so much food readily available. Yet we see in The Hobbit and Fellowship (movies) that there are vast hordes of orcs in a single location. Adding to this problem is that caves and mountains are not high-calorie environments. Nearly all mountain peoples in history have been very poor. Even with the benefit of agriculture and herding, mountainous environments just can't support large populations.

An additional problem is that caves are cold. The dwarves, for instance, are short and stocky and are always depicted wearing heavy clothing, despite the "roaring fires" so favored by Gimli. The orcs, by contrast, are gangly and expose a great deal of skin. The orcs would need still more food than surface dwellers or dwarves just to keep themselves warm.

In short, the orcs shouldn't exist in the way they’re depicted. Hunter gatherers in cold, resource-poor environments would be malnourished and living in small, roving bands. Despite the ever-present threat of raids, they would not form an existential threat to a mid-sized community, particularly one that was well-armed (like the dwarves or elves). Orcish society is an entire mismatch to its environment.

Unless they didn't keep themselves warm. If the orcs are ectotherms (cold blooded), suddenly most of the problems of a semi-nomadic, hunter-gatherer society in a resource-poor environment disappear (and it explains the non-mammalian birth of the Uruk Hai depicted in Fellowship [movie]). By eliminating the need to generate body heat, you greatly reduce the number of calories that the orcs need to consume. The need for heavy clothing is similarly reduced. The hunter gatherer lifestyle, with large, intermittent meals, is also well suited to the ectotherm lifestyle.

A newborn Uruk-hai

By thinking of the orcs as more than just the disposable minions of the Big Bad, much of their behavior becomes explicable. They're not just going to war because that's what they do as the implacable foe, they do so because they have to do so. They aren't the faceless "other" just because you need someone to be the bad guys, but because they are entirely alien from the other species in Middle Earth. They would naturally have different needs and concerns and, whether subservient to a dark lord (Sauron or Saruman, or going back still farther, Melkor), would be unable to relate to the rest. Even something so simple as gathering around a fire. To a human, it brings life-giving warmth. To an orc, it provides the energy to hunt or go to war. To a human, eating is a repeated, social experience. To an orc, a meal would be a rare, large occasion, of little use for building ongoing relationships. A warm-blooded, surface-dwelling orc engaged in agriculture in a resource-rich environment would be a very different creature from the orcs of Middle Earth.

(Hamlette's note:  Thank you to my dear husband Cowboy for this exceedingly original post!  You're one of the few people I know who can make economics interesting.)


  1. Excellent post. It makes 100% perfect sense that the orcs are cold-blooded. They always struck me as being reptilian in nature. Lurtz's birth, naturally, but the tone of their skin, and their completely alien behavior. If a warm-blooded orc is supposed to be a nomadic, hunter/gatherer then we can tell just by behavior patterns that these orcs are not warm-blooded. Middle Earth would be left without the goblin threat if the orcs were all warm-blooded, so I'm glad it's impossible for them to fit that mold. Middle Earth needs its villains they way they're written in order for the heroes to triumph. :)

    1. In the movies, their eyes especially strike me as reptilian -- as I tried to show in that first screencap. Makes sense to me too!

  2. Remember the warming draught the Orcs force on Pippin? "UglĂșk thrust a flask between his teeth and poured some burning liquid down his throat: he felt a hot fierce glow flow through him... The warmth of the orc-draught had gone. Pippin felt cold and sick again." This draught must be an essential performance enhancer for orcs, bringing their bodies up to fully operational temperatures for battle. (Basking in the sunlight is not an option.) The Mordor orcs also carry the stuff and administer it to Frodo when he's bitten by Shelob.


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