On this page are some of my own theories on what orcs are all about, bolstered by as much evidence from Tolkien as I can find. Some is just to define the terms I tend to use, and some is just outright theory! I'll try to make it clear which is which. A couple other folks are also quoted for similar or slightly diverging arguments.
* Uruks and Goblins and Orcs, Oh
* Are Orcs Immortal?
* Orcish Culture and Family Life
First of all, goblins are orcs. The words are pretty much interchangeable, it's just that "goblin" is mostly used in The Hobbit, and "orcs" in Lord of the Rings and elsewhere. Note that the four dead Uruk-hai found with Boromir at Parth Galen are described as "goblin-soldiers of greater stature". And yes, orcs come in a number of flavors.
Most of the orcs of the Misty Mountains and even many of those in Mordor and elsewhere are your garden-variety orc, not a lot taller than dwarves but varying widely in size and shape.
"Uruk-hai" technically just means "orc-folk", but I tend to apply it just to Saruman's super-orcs. In Mordor we also find Uruks, also called "black Uruks" (as Gandalf identified in Moria). These are a larger breed, able to withstand the sun, which first show up a good five hundred years before the War of the Ring. There is no direct indication that these are man-orc hybrids, though Sauron certainly could have done that if he wanted to. My guess is that he simply bred orcs selectively for size and sun-tolerance, same way we breed cattle for good milk or good meat. Sauron didn't need an elite force of super-orcs, since he usually had far more regular orcs and regular men than he'd need for any particular job. For "surgical" work he used the Nazgul. If the sun was really a problem he could dim it with fumes from Mt. Doom.
In Isengard we definitely see cross-breeding of men and orcs, and this is where the movie confuses things. Between the extremes of men on one hand and orcs on the other, Saruman's breeding program has produced a continuum of mixes, from large powerful orcs (the Fighting Uruk-hai!), to orc-men or goblin-men or half-orcs, to ugly evil men with slanty eyes. (The terminology varies depending on the observer, since these hybrids are new to everyone.) Presumably he wanted the strength of men combined with the rapid reproduction and susceptibility to slavish devotion of orcs, something like that. My guess is that he started with regular Misty Mountain orcs, many of whom he used as troops "as is". There were plenty to recruit--they'd given Rohan trouble in the past when trying to migrate from the Misty Mountains to the White Mountains.
The confusion the movie causes is to say that Saruman crossed orcs with "goblin men". But goblin-men are the RESULT of the breeding program, not one of the ingredients! No idea why Jackson made that change--seems to me that crossing orcs with men is much simpler in concept and more evil.
Whether Saruman was the first to breed orcs with men, or whether he was imitating Mordor, is unknown. I think it was done at times long before him, but just wasn't done to any extent or for a specific purpose. Saruman was the first to make it a regular program with a number of goals--more useful orcs, and more dominatable men. His resources were much smaller than Sauron's, so it made more sense for him to "upgrade" his forces.
Finally, there are some writings of Tolkien's that say that some orcs may be corrupted Maiar, sort of mini-Balrogs. I don't know if any sort of detail is given, but obviously these would be leader-types, bigger and smarter than the rest. Some folks think the orc-chieftain who skewered Frodo in Moria might have been one of those, though I regard him as one of the black Uruks of Mordor, probably an officer of Barad-dur like Grishnakh. Too bad we don't get to know him better before Aragorn so rudely chops his head in half!
"Men could under the domination of Morgoth or his agents in a few generations be reduced almost to the Orc-level of mind and habits; and then they would or could be made to mate with Orcs, producing new breeds, often larger and more cunning."
From Text X of "Myths Transformed" in The History
of Middle Earth, vol.X: Morgoth's Ring.
(Thanks to Curious)
"...some of them are large and evil: Black Uruks of Mordor..."
From Reverend Brian Smith, TheOneRing.Net Reading Room, 1/14/03
"This invites the question of what, in particular, makes an orc notably ëevil.í And the question of how the Black Uruks differ from ordinary orcs. In Appendix A ëThe Stewardsí we are told ëin the last years of Denethor I the race of Uruks, black orcs of great strength, first appeared out of Mordor, and in 2475 they swept across Ithilien and took Osgiliath.í That is, theyíve been around for over five hundred years. They are also noted in Appendix B that in 2901 most of the inhabitants of Ithilien desert it owing to the attacks of the Uruks of Mordor (As this was fifty years before Sauron declared himself openly we might conjecture that Minas Morgul was a sort of uric city-state -but that is beyond the bounds of this study). Some sources refer to these Uruks as ëUruk-Hai.í The question is whether they are the same as the Uruk-Hai of Saruman.
"Sarumanís Uruk-Hai surprise Aragorn; heís never seen anything like them. And he would certainly be familiar with the Uruks of Mordor. Further, the term ëblackí is never applied to Sarumanís Uruk-Hai. The name itself is so generic as to be no help. Uruk simply means ëOrcí and Hai means ëfolkí or ëpeopleí. Only if we stretch ëpeopleí to ëmení and call them orc-men does this give us any sort of a clue. But that is speculative.
"It is proposed that both Saruman and Sauron recognized the deficiencies of existing stock and went at the problem with similar goal, both producing superior, but not identical, products. Specifically, they needed orcs who could function in sunlight, and, among other diabolical modifications, they added human blood to the mix. I would propose that the ëBlackí Uruks are the result of overkill on the sun-resistance specification; I picture them as genuinely jet-black, unlike any actual human hue. The orc-chieftain who spears Frodo is ëswartí which is sometimes used of dark-skinned humans, but literally means ëblack.í It is, oddly, noted that his tongue is red; I would suggest that this was notable because of the extreme contrast.
"Saruman seems to have come up with a lighter-skinned mix, which is not so much noted for its great strength (that orc-chieftain brushed off Boromir) as for itís capacity for Esprit de Corps...
"Selective breeding, especially when supplemented by magic, can accomplish wonders. There might be any number of specialist breeds like the tracker encountered in Mordor. And anything on two legs might go into the mix. We would have to guess that the little orcs that Frodo and Sam marched with had some Hobbit or Dwarf blood."
That's the big question! According to the Silmarillion in its published form, the elves believed that orcs were first formed from corrupted and ruined elves who had been captured by Morgoth. Elves are immortal, of course (that is, they do not die of old age), while men are given mortality as a special gift of Eru. So presumably Morgoth would not be able to remove elvish immortality when he made his first orcs. Not that he'd really want to, of course, since it's much easier to build up an army if the troops aren't dying off or retiring.
By this train of logic, the orcs and goblins seen in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings are immortal like elves. It would explain why the Great Goblin and his buddies who capture Bilbo and the dwarves recognize Glamdring and Orcrist, swords which were made in Gondolin TWO AGES before! It would also explain why Shagrat and Gorbag apparently remember the Great Siege of Barad-dur at the end of the Second Age. (At the very least, these two incidents must reflect an orcish culture with a very rich and strong oral history!)
It should be noted that Tolkien himself was undecided on this issue. His later versions of Silmarillion stories has orcs being derived from corrupted men, though in all fairness his very earliest writings say they were formed directly from stone by Morgoth. But as published, the Silmarillion definitely seems to have orcs showing up long before men do, so they must have been made from elves.
I'll admit that I found the idea of orcish immortality very hard to swallow at first, but it has grown on me. I console myself with the thought that very few orcs survive long enough to realize they are immortal!
From Curious, TORN Reading Room, 3/2/03
"The problem of what to do with immortal orc/elf souls perplexed Tolkien. But he did say in Morgoth's Ring that if the soul of an orc were immortal, and if it obeyed the summons to the Halls of Mandos, then it would be confined there until the end of time.
"I like to think that there were both mortal and immortal orcs. I also like to think that some of them did obey the summons to the Halls of Mandos, where they spent the rest of eternity seeking healing and forgiveness. But I must say that it is more likely that none of them obeyed the summons, fearing the Valar as they did, and bound by terrible oaths to Morgoth and Sauron."
The Reverend adds:
"I will only add that a lot of orcs had no soul at all, but acted as direct extensions of the Dark Lord of the moment, so that, for example many went mad when Sauron was overthrown."
Very little is stated about orc society or culture, except very general things about them breeding rapidly. The presence of Bolg Son of Azog in The Hobbit tells us that paternity is recognized and important at least to leaders. We never see or meet a female, yet orcs are said to breed in the same general way as men or elves. Tolkien mentions underground cities, with a capital at Mount Gundabad. The problem may be that anthropologists who go into the wild to study orcs in their natural environment get eaten...
My own Utterly Unsupported Theory is that orcish reproduction is very similar to that of humans, except that multiple births or litters are the rule. Most of the offspring are male. They mature quickly, with a pretty high mortality rate due to an exceptionally rough childhood. By age 10 they become warriors and/or workers. There is constant squabbling and fighting, mostly non-lethal within a given tribe or group, both to toughen the fighters and establish social rank or pecking order. Only the strongest become leaders and have the priveledge of mating with the females. (Sounds like a cross between lions and bees, I guess!)
The orcish economy is also hardly touched by Tolkien. "They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones... Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions have always delighted them..." (He means computers, of course!)
They really don't seem to be big on agriculture or animal husbandry! Their slaves may have raised crops and animals for them, and Tolkien says there are "wicked dwarves" who make alliances with orcs. And if dwarves will do that, men will certainly conduct trade, especially in areas ruled by Sauron or Morgoth. Other human settlements may be forced to give tribute, and of course there is always raiding. In more desolate areas, hunting and gathering may be crucial, both above and below ground. In more organized areas like Isengard and Mordor, orcish armies were supported by organized human-run farms and fields (Dunland and the Sea of Nurnen, respectively), and there would be more access to textiles and better finished products of all kinds.
I see orcs as the ultimate scavengers, always ruining and destroying but rarely wasting what might be useful or edible. Not to be criticizing the Professor, but I think Tolkien rather missed this point. Places like Moria should not be littered with weaponry and bones--corpses of any species would be immediately collected for food. Bones that are no good for gnawing on can be made into armor or implements. Discarded weapons, clothing, and armor would be reused or recycled. A book would be burned for fuel if it couldn't be eaten. Any old nail can be made into an arrowhead. Now in some circumstances, such thrift simply isn't practical: the Uruk-hai who capture Merry and Pippin are already well-equipped and have good provisions, and are in too much of a hurry to strip their dead or carve up a supply of Boromir Burgers.