Are Tolkien’s Orcs Immortal?

Mordor Orcs

What do YOU think?

It’s one of those questions from Middle-earth that keeps cropping up, as there is no definitive answer yet.

In The Silmarillion Tolkien writes that Orcs came into being before the First Age in mockery of the Elves. Does the fact that Elves do not die a natural death imply that orcs embody the same immortality? Or do they age and die quicker due to their corrupt origin?

Let us not forget that in The Hobbit, the goblins of Goblin-Town are terrorised by Orcrist, which was last used during the Siege of Gondolin in the First Age. To some it indicates that these same goblins (or Orcs) were present during that conflict and have been living under the Misty Mountains for thousands of years.

Others challenge this claim by stating the simple fact that Orcs, like Men, Elves and Dwarves, have their own tales that are passed from one generation to the next. The fear of the swords of Gondolin may have descended through the ages from father to son till the time of The Hobbit.

Then there’s the other issue.

The only orc for whom we can estimate a specific age is Bolg. Following some quick calculations, we know that Azog was killed in TA2799. His son would, presumably, already have been born at that time (or conceived, at least … ugh). He appears during the Battle of Five Armies in TA2941. This means that bolg was at least 142 years old at the time of the Battle, well beyond the normal lifespan of men.

So we may cautiously conclude that, if not immortal, orcs certainly embody some of the qualities that make Elves ageless.

Now I pose the question to you. What do you think about Orcs and immortality? Do the drafts in Morgoth’s Ring convince you otherwise?

Share your thoughts with us!

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32 thoughts on “Are Tolkien’s Orcs Immortal?

  1. I’ve always through they might very well be immortal. However, since Orc Society, when they aren’t fighting someone else, mainly consists of them fighting and killing each other, I think most Orcs would wind up having a fairly short life anyway. Only the more powerful Orcs, the captains and chieftains, would be able to survive for a very long time.

  2. I feel they are mortal, due to their initial corruption working through them with time. Essentially, the corruption that made them orcs has mortally wounded them. But then this begs the question, do dead orcs go to the Halls of Mandos?
    Another important question: Where are the female orcs? And the orc children come to think of it?

    • I agree with you Ignatius, that there corruption somewhat removed that long-lived ability. We don’t know what happens to orcs after they die, as much as men.

      As for female orcs, Tolkien had mentioned them in a 1963 letter : “There must have been orc-women. But in stories that seldom if ever see the Orcs except as soldiers of armies in the service of the evil lords we naturally would not learn much about their lives. Not much was known.”

  3. Hi James. I may not be feeding back as much but I continue to enjoy your articles. Elves may not die naturally but they do seem to fade. Perhaps, as a corruption of elves, orcs live longer than men but fade much faster than elves. They do not have the hope of the call to go west. Perhaps, even the fading of the elves is part of the corruption of Morgoth as it seems to affect those who are in some form of rebellion choosing not to go overseas – a rebellion rooted in the intent and actions of Morgoth. With orcs being even more impacted by the Dark Lord, perhaps they fade much faster.

    PS: I am just guessing!

    • Hey Bob! Great to have you back.

      Your comment: “Perhaps, as a corruption of elves, orcs live longer than men but fade much faster than elves.” sums up my thoughts to the point. I think I agree with this.

  4. I think the answer depends on what you take as higher “canon”: what was published or what Tolkien said last. Because by the published books, the orcs being elves suggests that they were probably immortal.
    BUT Tolkien said they weren’t, which is why he ultimately decided against the orcs are elves origin since Morgoth wouldn’t be able to take away their mortality. I think his final idea was that they were men.
    So in The Silmarillion (published) they might be, but in the theoretical “final” version of Tolkien’s legendarium they definitely aren’t. Feel free to correct me if I got anything wrong because I’m going off my memory of The Silmarillion and stuff I read on the Internet.

    • Hey J.A. no I think your right. What is canon or not is a sensitive issue and you’ve quite rightly put forward the contradictions that exist on this very subject. I wonder whether a letter or a draft will ever come to light to explain the real deal with orc origins? 🙂

      • From what I gather Tolkien kept changing his mind, so I’m not sure there is a “real deal.” I really wish he’d lived long enough to finish up all his works and give us answers to these questions.

  5. Let’s try it from a different angle. Are orcs mortal? If death is a unique gift given by Iluvatar, why are we assuming he gave it to Orcs as well?

    They could be mortal in a sense that Dwarves are – they age and eventually pass from MiddleEarth, but not away from Arda like men. BTW, where do hobbits go?

    • No that’s a intriguing angle of the argument. The “gift of Men” would not have been given to orcs, true. But then, did orcs originate from Men and so indirectly receive that same gift? Tricky!

      • As slim as connection between Orcs and Elves, connection to Men is slimmer yet. What’s interesting is that neither Elves nor Men did not seem to worry much about orc origins or mortality – only insofar as killing them more effectively.

        Were orcs more numerous then men in Third Age? If so, they are the largest culture in Middle Earth and should be recognized as such. Too bad there is not enough ethnographic material on them – they had symbolic art and songs…

  6. Can the Orcs be saved? It doesn’t seem like they chose corruption but were forced into it. The Rankin and Bass “Return Of The King” shows a dream by Frodo that shows Orcs at peace. Terry Prachett also had issues with this. What do you think?

      • Saved? Hell? that’s some loaded lingo here. …there is only one Jesus-like figure in Tolkien’s world and that seems to be Melkor. He invested himself into material world much like God did by having his son walk to Earth. That’s all heresy of course.

  7. How have I never even thought about this? Strong arguments can clearly be made on either side, and Tolkien never explicitly says one way or the other. I guess we will never know 😦

  8. The conversation Sam overhears between two orc captains at the end of Two Towers suggests that if not immortal, the orcs are very, very long lived (or maybe just have lengthy cultural memories).

    Gorbag, the orc from Minas Morgul, suggests deserting after the war and setting up as independent raiders somewhere free from the “big bosses” in Barad-dur. His counterpart from Cirith Ungol replies “Ah! Like old times.” When exactly the last time was that the orcs were free from the Mordor command structure could arguably be as recent as ~77 years earlier when Sauron returned from Dol Guldur, but could easily refer to a time centuries or millennia earlier when the dominion of Mordor was not as strong such as the beginning of the Second or Third Age.

    Later, Gorbag states that the elf spy they are searching for (really Sam) is “more dangerous than any other damned rebel that ever walked since the bad old times, since the Great Siege.” The Great Siege is probably a reference to the Siege of Barad-dur during the Last Alliance, over three thousand years earlier. The way Gorbag refers to the “bad old times” seems more like direct knowledge than just an orcish idiom (and the days following the victory of the Alliance were certainly bad times to be an orc).

    The issue of Glamdring and Orcrist is curious though, and I hadn’t really thought about it before. Neither solution seems truly satisfactory. The idea that the goblins of the Misty Mountains surviving the sack of Gondolin, then surviving the subsequent battles, including the War of Wrath, and escaping to the Misty Mountains, and then surviving the War of the Dwarves and the Orcs (which took place in those very mountains), with clear enough memories of those two blades strains credulity. The idea of the legend of the swords begin passed down through generations doesn’t hold up much better, as the goblins not only recognize the swords, but can even tell them apart. We’ve all heard of Excalibur, but I doubt any of us would be able to identify it by sight, especially as it swung at our heads.

    My hypothesis is that the goblins have been using the swords of Gondolin against one another in internecine conflict for the last few millennia. They may hate the elves and their weapons, but a pragmatic goblin warlord wouldn’t be against turning them against their rivals.

    • Great stuff Sean! I was always intrigued by Gorbag and Shagrat’s conversation in the Two Towers. Like you, I believe that there reference to the “Great Siege” is for the Last Alliance.

      I like your hypothesis of the goblins’ use of swords too. This is pretty exciting stuff 🙂

    • A more plausible explanation is that they call any blade that suddenly appears and starts killing fellows left and right Biter. I know I would! And since TWO appeared all of a sudden, the second one is obviously Beater 🙂

  9. I think they are immortal! In “The Hobbit” it is not only Lord Elrond but also the Goblin King who recognises Glamdring and Orcrist the two ‘ancient’ swords.

  10. Let me add a question out of ignorance: When Tolkien speaks of “immortal” does he not mean two things: 1) not a man, a human, a mortal; and 2) a “longliver” in the elf tradition? I suspect in the LOTR books an elf is an undier (not a word), one who does not decompose yet can be killed.
    So as orcs are fell elves, has their undyingness stayed with them? I suspect that they kept the longliver genetic makeup, but I don’t know if they are undiers. Moreover, their lifestyle does not support long life.

    • Interesting thoughts Brenton. I’ve always though of Tolkien “immortal” in the two ways you pointed out. Then again, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of Tolkien says how death was a gift to men. With that reasoning, one could venture to state that orcs had no right to claim that gift of death, which might imply …

      • Yes, you are back to the beginning then.
        Is there two meanings of death? I mean, in Tolkien, is death by arrow and death by old age in two categories. For humans, they are both the violent death of the frame–one very quickly, and one very slowly.

      • Indeed. I think, as you mention, there are two sides of death. Elves can also be subjected to one kind of death (physical violence). Men seem to be subjected to both.

  11. Yes, and Elves, like Ainur and ultimately Valar simply do not age. They simply remain. I think that’s key difference from humans. Humans are special that way, Elves always thought of it as extra ability. Why would Orks share this ability? It’s only Men who continue to think of it as a curse.

  12. I imagine that elves and orcs had a similar natural life span at the beginning of Arda. However the orc’s cruel and violent lifestyle may have made their life spans shorter. Later after men awoke Morgoth may have bred orcs,elves and men and by doing so limited their lifespan and since orcs are hardy I would imagine they live into the 200’s if they are not felled by war, famine, pestilence.

  13. Fascinating commentary!

    I’m working on a ‘long’ short story using orc characters, but this issue hasn’t been relevant so far. .

  14. Yes, I always thought the conversation with Gorbag indicated that orcs were immortal. That would explain a lot, I can’t imagine what the ‘Great Siege’ could refer to if not the Last Alliance.

    But I’ve always wondered about the orcs, a race without hope of redemption. Not a very Christian idea, and I believe Tolkien himself was troubled by this.

    I used to read the passages about orcs with relish and interest, and it seems to me that the more you write about them the less you can avoid humanizing them. There are definite traces of orc culture in LOTR: decorations, art (even if just savage carvings), language, even the usage of imaginative curses. There also seem to be ideas of morality, even if just something to accuse others of betraying. And yes, there must have been orc women, orc children, and by implication nurturing, teaching, playing.

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