September 14th, 2012Travelling with Orcsby Joseph Pearce

In previous posts I have mused about “an evening with Gollum” and about “breakfast with Mr. Gullible”, whom I compared to Denethor. Continuing the theme, I’d like to recount an unpleasant hour many years ago in which I found myself in the company of orcs. It was back in England, a land that has become much like Mordor. To be precise, it was on an eastbound tube train in London.

I was seated and feeling tolerably comfortable when the two orcs boarded the train. At first, I didn’t take too much notice. Gradually, however, I found myself drawn into their conversation, not as a participant but as a horrified listener. I was struck by the sheer uncouth negativity of their discussion. Every other word was an unrepeatable expletive, uttered without the least care for the sensibilities of the women, children and hobbits trapped within earshot. In between the blasphemies, curses and coarseness their speech was animated by animosity. They did not have a positive or civil word to say about anyone or anything. Everything was the object of scorn, poisoned by their venomous invective.

As I continued to listen, I began to wonder if they would have anything good to say. Surely, I thought, even the most darkened souls had something that they liked and enjoyed. Slowly, as the train wended its interminable way eastwards, I realized that the only thing that they liked and enjoyed was spitting venom.

I would add that I am not exaggerating. The conversation that I overheard was at least as vulgar and pernicious as the foul exchange between Gorbag and Shagrat, overheard by Samwise Gamgee, in The Lord of the Rings. It was then that it dawned on me, with a creeping horror, that I was in the company of orcs.

One of the most unsettling things about orcs is that they seem predestined for damnation. Indeed it has been argued that the existence of orcs is a theological faux pas on Tolkien’s part. Surely, the argument runs, orcs are rational creatures and, as such, they must be open to reason. Since reason, properly pursued, leads to faith, it is illicit to presume that rational creatures, such as orcs, cannot see the force of reason and come to their senses. Even orcs must realize the unsatisfying and self-defeating consequences of vice. Surely their own experience of the unhappiness that they cause to themselves and to others would lead some of them to desire the ways of virtue. So the argument runs …

It is true that a Christian must hope that even orcs can be saved. The problem is, however, that vice is addictive. It is a deadly drug. The more we do it, the more we want it, even though it makes us miserable. We feel as though we can’t do without it. We are possessed by it. The vice we like has us in its vice-like grip.

And this begs other questions: Is an addict able to choose the good? Doesn’t addiction mean or imply that we are enslaved by our habit? We are slaves. We are not free. If we are not free, can we be blamed for our actions? If we are not culpable, can we be condemned?

These are difficult questions which may have uncomfortable and unsettling answers. Could it not be argued, for instance, that we are responsible for the bad choices that lead us to the addiction? If we said “yes” to sin when we were free to say “no”, if we said “yes” when we knew that it was wrong to do so, are we not responsible for the bad habits that we develop? Are we responsible for our addiction to the drug which our non-addicted conscience knew it was wrong to take?

But what if someone was hideously abused as a child? What if one had the deep misfortune to have orcs as parents? Would such a child, grown to adulthood, have any real conception of virtue, of what is right and wrong? It will be argued by the Christian philosopher that even the most corrupted of people will feel the inexorable prompting of the natural law, calling them towards the good, the true and the beautiful. This may be so and I have no desire to argue with Christian philosophers. All that I know is that the two orcs that I met on the eastbound train showed no apparent inkling that there was a goodness, truth and beauty, or that anything mattered beyond the course curses that they brought down on God’s Creation.

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