As always, dear readers, welcome.

In past years, Orcs have appeared a number of times in CD’s postings, including a study of the appearance of Orcs as Tolkien describes them versus the ways in which artists have depicted them (“Orc Looks”, 13 November, 2019).  Recently, however, I’ve been thinking about something Frodo sees—not through his own eyes but through the Ring, on Amon Hen (appropriately, as it is called “the Hill of the Eye of the Men of Numenor”):

“But everywhere he looked he saw the signs of war.  The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills:  orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book Two, Chapter 10 , “The Breaking of the Fellowship)

I’ve recently taught The Hobbit again (it never gets old) and the Misty Mountains, of course, appear.

There were no orcs then, just goblins on the way in,

and goblins on the way out.

Others have written about the influence of George MacDonald (1824-1905)

on Tolkien and the title of one of MacDonald’s best-known books suggests one influence:

The Princess and the Goblin (1872).

In the Letters, JRRT twice associates MacDonald with goblins (178, to Naomi Mitchison, 25 April 1954;  185, to Hugh Brogan, 18 September 1954), but another influence besides the word and the idea may lie in where the goblins live.  In The Princess and Curdie, a boy, Curdie, who works in the mines, has broken through into the goblin realm and comes upon a great hall:

“He was at the entrance of a magnificent cavern, of an oval shape, once probably a huge natural reservoir of water, now the great palace hall of the goblins. It rose to a tremendous height, but the roof was composed of such shining materials, and the multitude of torches carried by the goblins who crowded the floor lighted up the place so brilliantly, that Curdie could see to the top quite well. But he had no idea how immense the place was until his eyes had got accustomed to it, which was not for a good many minutes. The rough projections on the walls, and the shadows thrown upwards from them by the torches, made the sides of the chamber look as if they were crowded with statues upon brackets and pedestals, reaching in irregular tiers from floor to roof. The walls themselves were, in many parts, of gloriously shining substances, some of them gorgeously coloured besides, which powerfully contrasted with the shadows…

At the other end of the hall, high above the heads of the multitude, was a terrace-like ledge of considerable height, caused by the receding of the upper part of the cavern-wall. Upon this sat the king and his court: the king on a throne hollowed out of a huge block of green copper ore, and his court upon lower seats around it.” (The Princess and the Goblin, Chapter 9, “The Hall of the Goblin Palace”)

Here is the equivalent in The Hobbit:

“…they stumbled into a big cavern.

It was lit by a great red fire in the middle, and by torches along the wall, and it was full of goblins…

There in the shadows on a large flat stone sat a tremendous  goblin with a huge head, and armed goblins were standing round him carrying the axes and the bent swords they use.”  (The Hobbit, Chapter 4, “Over Hill and Under Hill”)

MacDonald’s goblins have extensive tunnels and are planning to use them both the kidnap the princess of the book’s title and to cause great destruction by employing the tunnels to flood the human mines to which they are adjacent. 

Tolkien’s goblins also have extensive tunnels, as we hear when the news spread about the death of the Great Goblin:

“Messengers had passed to and fro between all their cities, colonies and strongholds…Tidings they had gathered in secret ways; and in all the mountains there was a forging and an arming.  Then they marched and gathered by hill and valley, going ever by tunnel or under dark, until around and beneath [the great mountain Gundabad of the North, where was their capital, a vast host was assembled…” (The Hobbit, Chapter 17, “The Clouds Burst”)

By the time of The Lord of the Rings, it is clear that those Hobbit goblins had metamorphosed into orcs—Tolkien, basically, had decided that “goblin” was too close to the fairy tale world with which he did not want his work too closely associated—and even in the Letters, if you look for references to them in the index, you are referred to orcs (Letters, 470).

Their appearance, goblin or orc, varies.  Take Ugluk and Ghrishnakh, for instance:

“…a large black Orc, probably Ugluk, standing facing Grishnakh, a short crook-legged creature, very broad and with long arms that hung almost to the ground.  Round them were many smaller goblins.  Pippin supposed that these were the ones from the North.” (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 3, “The Uruk-hai”)   In an undated letter to Forrest J Ackerman, from June, 1958, Tolkien describes them as:  “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes” (Letters, 274). 

This has, in turn, spawned a wide variety of images, from the early Hildebrandts

and Angus McBride

to the later Alan Lee,

John Howe,

and Ted Nasmith.

In terms of following JRRT’s idea, that, as Trolls were made “in mockery of Ents”, so “Orcs were made of Elves”, I would say that only the Nasmith is close, but what Frodo saw in his vision has suggested a completely different possibility, one which is furthered by something Tolkien wrote in a long letter of 1954 to Peter Hastings.  He has been discussing Morgoth and the orcs:

“I have represented at least the Orcs as pre-existing real being on whom the Dark Lord has exerted the fullness of his power in remodelling and corrupting them, not making them.”

But it’s what appears at the end of the paragraph which caught my attention:

“There might be other ‘makings’ all the same which were more like puppets filled (only at a distance) with their maker’s mind and will, or ant-like operating under direction of a queen-centre.”  (Letters, 195)

This matches, of course, what Frodo saw: 

“The Misty Mountains were crawling like anthills:  orcs were issuing out of a thousand holes.”

Orcs as the equivalent of insects who live in holes?  I would add another detail, however.  As Treebeard has said that orcs are a mockery of elves, he has also noticed something else:

“…he has been doing something to them; something dangerous.  For these Isengarders are more like wicked Men.  It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun; but Saruman’s Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it.”  (The Two Towers, Book Three, Chapter 4, “Treebeard”)

Insects of varied size and color, but can’t endure the sun.  Might another model for orcs be cockroaches?

With that very creepy thought, I thank you as ever, dear readers, saying

Stay well and be sure that there’s




If you’d like to read The Princess and the Goblin yourself, here’s a LINK:

I recommend it, not only as a (distant) source for JRRT, but as a very interesting and engaging piece of Victorian fantasy.