I remember the first time I tried to properly read the Bible. I lay down in bed, cracked open Genesis, and just ploughed in there. The stories seemed fun enough, and a lot of the ideas are certainly interesting. (Genesis 3:22 has always been a favourite little curiosity of mine…)
But the genealogies…
I can never manage the genealogies. Where Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram…
Pictured: even the Flanders can’t handle lists that long.
Pages and pages of them! When I was young, I could never work out why they’d stop the stories and parables in favour of a really long list of names. And not names of interesting characters. Names of people we’re never really interested in, whose stories we never hear, and who aren’t ever really mentioned again. It’s like those double page spreads in special issues of the ‘Avengers’ comics where you’ve got two pages filled with all the heroes, and you know Iron Man, Thor and Black Widow, but you’ve got no idea who the other nine hundred tits in tights are in the background, and you never get to find out, because they never show up again.
‘Who are these people?’ I wondered. ‘What is the point of mentioned them if they don’t do anything else?’
I didn’t realise that there were only three names on the list that mattered: Abraham, David, and, of course, Yeshua.
Years of Nativity plays have taught us that Jesus was the son of a carpenter. We’ve all been there, sat in a hall as scared children in fibre-glass beards stand next to cardboard cows with rubber gloves for udders, praying that the sick-looking girl vomits on the smug-looking boy playing the third King from the left. As a result, we all know that Jesus was born so absurdly humble, his family couldn’t find any room at an inn, and had to stay in a barn with the animals. It’s a charming story; a narrative designed to show us that God doesn’t really like the rich.
The problem, of course, is that people have always hated the poor. And an impoverished son of God… Well, it’s a solid moral lesson, but it doesn’t bring legitimacy.
Hence the geneaologies. See, Jesus has to have credibility. He has to be royalty. The same way Aragorn can’t just be some guy who’s strong and brave and fundamentally decent, Jesus can’t just be himself, oh no. He has to be a king, too, even if he never mentions it. So the Bible interrupts a set of entertaining tales with a series of people’s names in order to prove that Yeshua, son of Joseph, who would later be named Jesus, The Anointed One, was in fact, descended from a line of kings.
Which means, despite the Nativity, he wasn’t just some working class dole-scum, out to steal the jobs from hard-working locals. No, he was a king, descended from kings.
Poverty as Immorality.
There’s an interesting bit of etymology I like.
villain (n.) c. 1300 (late 12c. as a surname), “base or low-born rustic,” from Anglo-French and Old French vilain “peasant, farmer, commoner, churl, yokel” (12c.), from Medieval Latin villanus “farmhand,” from Latin villa “country house, farm” (see villa).
The most important phases of the sense development of this word may be summed up as follows: ‘inhabitant of a farm; peasant; churl, boor; clown; miser; knave, scoundrel.’ Today both Fr. vilain and Eng. villain are used only in a pejorative sense. [Klein]
Meaning “character in a novel, play, etc. whose evil motives or actions help drive the plot” is from 1822.
Our generic word for ‘a bad person’ comes from the old word for a farm worker; a peasant.
The word ‘villain’ descends from a word that initially described a generically poor labourer. But how did this happen? Who controls the language? Did everyone just wake up one day, and decide that the word ‘farmer’ suddenly meant ‘evil’?
Of course not.
It’s all in the stories we tell, or, more specifically, the stories the wealthy want told.
People are weird about money. Money shapes our perceptions of the world. Consider the humble suntan. In Victorian England, sun tans were considered unattractive; in the 1980s, a suntan was almost obligatory if a person were to be taken seriously as a beauty.
Why the change?
Because in Victorian England, the people who had suntans were common. They were people who were out in the fields, ploughing fields, doing manual labour. In the 1980s, when everyone common worked in offices, a suntan was a sign of wealth; that you could afford a lovely holiday somewhere the weather isn’t a steady stream of cold sky-piss.
It’s been this way for years, and across all cultures. Rich person does thing; poor people copy it. Why? Because if we keep sticking feathers up our jacksies, we’ll turn suddenly into chickens?
Well, a little. It’s not quite that simple. My theory has always been that it’s a bit like sympathetic magic. If I make a little doll that looks like you, and jab you with a pin, you’ll feel it, because the doll is like you. Likewise, if I see a rich person do something, and copy it, I’ll be like them. We copy success, in the hopes that success will seek us out too.
Not to mention that if you don’t look poor, people won’t treat you like you are.
An extension of all this is that people also tend to avoid things that the poor do. After all, if copying success leads to success, then copying failure…
This avoidance of the signs of poverty eventually becomes stigmatisation. Anything associated with poverty and its dread consequences becomes demonised by association. A recent example of this was seen in the early 2000s in England. Certain sections of the lowest-income bracket of the working class – so called ‘chavs’ – begin to wear Burberry-brand clothes as a sort of uniform; the same way metal clubs hand out leather jackets and band T-shirts on the door, the chav culture begins to wear Burberry’s strange beige plaid. Why? Because Burberry is perceived as a sign of wealth. It’s a name that denotes power, prestige, money…
And what happens when the rest of society notices this?
Well, as newspaper articles from the time will tell you, the brand becomes ‘tarnished’. Literally, just because poor people started to wear them, the clothes became less valuable. Burberry have since come back, but as commentators have stated, ‘Had Burberry’s chav association been known abroad, the damage would have been greater, and the brand might have been harder to turn around’
We’ve always hated the poor. Always.
It’s why Batman beats up street level thugs (who are, at the end of the day, merely a symptom of poverty) rather than entirely legal high-level financial immoralities that keep the very least of us in penury from cradle to grave the cause). And of course, while such fiscal game-playing may well be legal, well… So was the Holocaust.
Pictured: the equivalent of fighting weeds by clipping the leaves and leaving the root, but damned if it doesn’t build a billionaire’s self-esteem.
Zombie Apocalypse At Outpost Nine.
Human beings love killing. We love everything about it. We pretend we don’t, dressing our murderous desires up as sports, games or service to country, but the bottom line is that we’re obsessed with the death of others.
Pictured: seriously, killing is so cool.
The trouble is, that we’re also acutely aware that killing other people? Is kind, probably, maybe, possibly, perhaps a bad thing. We’re generally agreed that we don’t want to be killed, and seeing as most humans have vaguely functional empathy for people who aren’t them, we generally see that other people might not want to be killed either, no matter how much fun it would be for us to end their lives.
Now, back in the days of yore, this wasn’t so much of a problem. The morality of it became very simple. Murder might be bad, but if they guy has it coming, well, you better give it to him. When the baddies are unambiguously bad, killing them becomes a moral duty.
But as society has progressed, we’ve become aware of moral complexities of these situations that were invisible before. And by ‘invisible before’, I mean ‘we chose not to pay them any attention before’.
So, where once we tell stories about English chaps with hearts of oak bringing culture and enlightenment to savage lands, in later times we get stories, revealing that actually ‘savage’ cultures, were in fact, doing fairly well before the arrival of our cosy little genocide and that actually, though the tea is nice, they’d rather we never came at all. Or we tell stories about war that acknowledge that maybe our enemies aren’t the lunatics we’re told they are.
As a result, we tend to recoil from the idea that anyone who cheerfully takes the life of another in cold blood… Even though we all secretly (or not so secretly) have paid to watch a film where that exact thing happens.
Cue the development of the guilt-free extermination war trope. In this trope – for the purposes of this article – humans face off against an enemy they don’t have to feel guilty about killing. The Broadcasting Standards and Practises departments of children’s television bloody love this trope. They love to show kids how it’s fun to play in a non-violent way. After all, showing children footage of people shooting at one another with guns as those bullets tear flesh to pieces, leaving human bodies smoking with gore-spattered ruin is irresponsible… But showing those exact same acts happening to a robot is just fine, because everyone knows, robots can’t feel feelings.
Pictured: f**k you, R2-D2. No-one cares about how brave you are.
Because people want to kill, and people love to tell stories about how awesome killing is, so we invent loathsome enemies, entirely to murder them with a cheerful song in our hearts, safe in the knowledge that we’re Good People for doing so.
The guilt-free extermination war has brought us every kind of blank-souled villain, from robots, terminators, all the way through to bugs and zombies. These threats exist literally so we can vicariously enjoy the thrills of violence, without ever having to question whether the acts of murder we see are wrong.
Pictured: zombies can’t feel anything any more… Until we give them the cure. Then they can feel exactly how much we hate ourselves for killing everyone we could have saved.
Now, there are unwritten rules to the way these enemies work. A good enemy for a guilt-free extermination war has to have a number of qualities. They must be physically disgusting – people don’t like the idea of killing cute things, hence why zombies rot, evil robots never look like Wall-E, and why the Klendathunian brain bugs look like sentient foreskins. These enemies also need to be abjectly physically dangerous… Hence why a zombie bite is fatal; why killer robots are nigh invincible; why the Klendathunian warrior bugs are capable of walking, even though their simple existence is a giant middle finger held up to the Square/Cube law.
Finally, they need to be unrelatable. Hateful in the extreme. They need to be despicable, vile, incapable of drawing anything from us except fear and disgust.
And this is where we get to the orcs.
The Standard Fantasy Template
Now, before we begin, yes, orcs have been around since before JRR Tolkein, but let’s be real here: he’s the man who defined them in the modern consciousness. No Tolkein, no orcs. Simple as that.
In The Standard Fantasy Template, orcs generally come from/live in the most horrible parts of the setting. It’s just accepted. You’re an orc? You’re going to live where the monsters live, where fungus and nightmares grows, it’s going to be horrible, and you’re probably going to like it that way, because you are, in the end, an orc.
Tolkein’s orcs came from Mordor, and while I hate to judge a place on its name, anywhere that’s a single phoneme away from ‘murder’? yeah, probably not going to be the best place to live.
It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash, and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume.
Famously, writers like to write what they know, and it’s generally accepted that Tolkein, who was from the South of England, based his ideas and descriptions of Mordor on the industrialised areas of the UK, most of which are decidedly not in the South of England.
A brief digression for the sake of our Colonial cousins. The UK comprises four countries: England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. England has ever been divided, much as your United States is, along a North/South line. This is because traditionally, the North of England was where the heavy manufacturing and mining industries were, while the South was where the business and financial industries were based. As a consequence, national stereotypes sprang up, embedded, and now run deep, forming a significant part of the English character. These stereotypes traditionally suggest that Northerners view the Southerners as weak, soft, effete, and pompous, full of too much thinking and not enough working. For their part, Southerners apparently view the North as a land of knuckle-dragging monkeys; sub-literate humans barely capable of thinking unaided, let alone speaking the Queen’s English correctly. The truth is obviously that neither side really cares overmuch, being too busy as they are, living their lives. That said, these stereotypes do influence English thinking… And perhaps a little more than they really should.
So Mordor represents a kind of ‘worst-case’ version of the England’s industrial heart, seen through the mildly disconcerted lens of a man who’d been there and papped himself at the place’s appearance.
Tolkein weaves other parts of English culture and society into his stories. I, as others have done before, would argue every species in Tolkein represents an English class.
Additional note: obviously this is all about applicability, not allegory. For more details on the difference, feel free to read last month’s blog.
So the aristocratic classes, who in Tolkein’s era were seen less as the inheritors of a wealth they do not deserve and more as a patrician ‘caretaker’ class with a responsibility to lead, become Elves. Powerful, skilled, and in all ways Better Than You.
No reason this is here other than the fact I love ‘Rat Queens’. You should read it. It’s f**king great.
The Southern working-class were generally agrarian. They lived and worked out in the fields, poor but happy, enjoying the beauty of the countryside, fine ale and good smokes. Their lives were hard but contented, sheltered as they were in places like Befordshire, Hertfordshire and the like. In Tolkein’s work, they became Hobbits.
Members of the Northern working class, by contrast, were rugged. They worked hard, making their money from relentless physical labour. The descendents of Vikings, these gruff, dour people traditionally made money from mining. In Tolkein’s work, they became Dwarves.
And then we get to the orcs. Who are a violent, vicious ‘race’. A group dedicated only to fomenting chaos, who delight in destroying things, who live in the worst places imaginable, with clothing made of scraps, barely able to scrape an existence out for themselves, but yet all the more dangerous because of the feral needs their lifestyle and environment inflict upon them. Growing up angry, cut off from beauty, filled with hate for the world…
COME AND HAVE A GO IF YOU THINK YOU’RE ‘ARD ENOUGH!!!
Orcs share many characteristics with the worst stereotypes of the working class: violence, drunkeness, an inherently evil nature, etc… They’re villainous to the core.
And there’s that word again.
Culture is always in a process of evolution. Everyone takes what they like and keeps the best bits, adding new parts they’ve come up with until the idea, while functionally similar, is essentially completely new.
Tolkein comes up with the idea of ‘weaponising’ the most disliked subculture of England – maybe not deliberately, but the parallels are undeniable – and turns an entire class of people into a monstrous species for his heroes to murder, guilt-free.
Later writers build on this idea. Some only make simple, cosmetic changes. Maybe they make the orks bigger, or a different colour. Maybe they change the name of the species. Some make bigger changes; they tell stories from the orcs’ point of view, pointing out that a dystopic society like the orcs’ would simply fall apart.
Then a small gang of lads from the North of England – a gang of lads who’ve grown up in Mordo… sorry, in Nottingham– they see this species, this idea, and where every other writer is being deadly serious, they can only see the funny side.
“‘This?” they say. “He thinks we’re like this?”
And they piss themselves laughing. Oh, they love his works, but God bless ‘im, old JRR didn’t have a clue, did he, the soft, Southern, shandy-drinking sh!te.
Many, many alcoholic drinks and a few years later, they’ve taken the idea and run with it, taking this distorted parody of the kind of people they’ve spent their lives growing up around, and returning it as the farce they see it as.
Because, sure, orcs are violent and crude, and vulgar and stupid… But they’re also bloody good fun, and that’s something Tolkein’s missed.
Much like fantasy species can be seen through the lens of current cultures, almost every ‘alien’ species in a TV show tends to based on some existing human culture. Klingons are dirty commies in original Trek, Glasnost Russians in TNG. Ferengi are every cliché about thieving Middle Eastern merchants (the Arabic word for foreigner being ‘faranji’). Cardassians are Space Fascists, just like Daleks.
So what are Warhammer 40,000’s orks?
They’re football hooligans IN SPACE!
The proof is in the title of the very first Ork book was called ‘WAAAAAAARGH! The Orks!’: a pun, based on the (very familiar if you’re in England) football chant of ‘WE ARE THE <insert name of your particular football firm here>’. The second Ork book was called ‘ERE WE GO!’: this time, not even a pun, just an actual football chant.
A WAAARGH? It’s basically a football firm out looking for fun.
The thing is, this really does makes perfect sense, because original designers of 40K all grew up proper Northern working class, and so you can see why they’d refuse to cast orks as being simply Always Chaotic Evil, the way Tolkein did. They really hammer this point home by making the Eldar canonically admit that the Orks are literally above things like morality:
The Orks are the pinnacle of creation. For them, the great struggle is won. They have evolved a society which knows no stress or angst. Who are we to judge them? We Eldar who have failed, or the Humans, on the road to ruin in their turn? And why? Because we sought answers to questions that an Ork wouldn’t even bother to ask! We see a culture that is strong and despise it as crude.
Games Workshop go out of their way to make the aristocrats of their setting state outright that the working class scumbags are better than them! The final nail that hammers this home is the now-canonical idea that Orks are, to all intents and purposes, immune to Chaos… Even though it would make perfect sense for them to worship Khorne as much as either of their other gods.
In Warhammer 40,000, the writers have always gone out of their way to state it: Orks are explicitly NOT evil. They’re just… Well, Orks, and as such a law unto themselves. For all their horrible atrocities, they sit entirely outside good and evil, because they don’t do anything to other species that they wouldn’t expect in turn. They don’t start wars for money or greed or any other reason that LET’S ‘AVE A FACKIN’ WAAARGH LADS and they literally can’t conceive or a reason why any other species wouldn’t think that that’s a great idea. In the same way that Tyranids don’t understand mechanical devices, Orks don’t understand not-fighting. It’s why ‘best enemy’ is the highest praise an Ork can give – Ghazghkull lets Yarrick live for reasons that only make sense to an Ork. I’d argue that it’s what makes them one of the most truly alien of all the species of 40K; their mindset is set up just completely differently to everyone else’s. Survival doesn’t matter to them; just fighting for the sake of fighting, and having a laugh while they do.
Orcs began because Tolkein needed an enemy for his heroes to fight, but that they didn’t need to feel bad about killing, and in the Standard Fantasy Template, they fill that need perfectly. But he probably never anticipated people seeing a little of themselves in that, or worse, seeing the inherent comedy just waiting to be mined.
All this is why, in a world of GRIMDARK, the orks? Are probably the closest thing 40K has to actual, outright, good guys.
N.B.: Oh, and as a side note, I’ve been trying to work a reference to the superb ‘Looking For Eric’ all the way through this. But I haven’t been able to. So I’m just going to say it: watch ‘Looking For Eric’. it’s really, really bloody good. And I say that as someone who hates football.