I, Orc

Family Read

As originally published by Charles Eisenstein

Hey everyone, I’m taking a little break here from a long and intricate article I’m writing about central bank digital currencies. In the meantime, I’ll entertain you with my thoughts about Orcs.

The reason I’m thinking about orcs is my 9-year-old son, Cary. It’s his table manners. Just kidding. He is a perfect little gentleman, just like his father. Thanks to an older friend, Cary has taken a precocious interest in the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). I’m quite familiar with the game, having played its first version as a teenager. It was inspired by the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, in which Orcs were a race of evil, filthy, brutish humanoids under the power of the dark lord, Sauron. In my youth, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and other pseudo-mythological books occupied a nerdy cultural backwater, only penetrating the mainstream with the Peter Jackson films in the early 2000s. I confess to being among those nerds still.

D&D allows for the development of complex storylines and character development, but its mainstay, especially for teenage boys, is fighting monsters. Typically, a party of characters travels across landscapes and into abandoned castles and dungeons, battling evil foes, seeking treasure, and advancing in their combat and magical abilities. In the game, all characters and monsters have an “alignment”; they are good, evil, or neutral, lawful or chaotic. The stage is set for conflict, the setting is called a milieu, and the play of the game is called a campaign. This war of good against evil is true to its Tolkienian inspiration.

At breakfast this morning, Cary was showing me an alphabet of runes he had drawn, and the subject arose of whether orcs have writing. I began to spin out a revisionist history. “Actually,” I said, “some Orcs are highly literate.” Then I described a scene that would happen if I were the dungeon master (the referee and storyteller of a campaign). The characters are sent on a mission to clear out the Orc stronghold. They burst in through a side door only to find themselves in the orc library. Several Orcs are sitting in chairs reading. The librarian looks with shock at the intruders. “Can I help you find something?” she asks. Nonplussed, the characters confer among themselves what is to be done. “Shhh!” says the librarian.

Drawing by Cary Eisenstein

After a few more conversations with orcs in the stronghold, the characters begin to question which side they should be on. Are the Orcs really so uncouth, or do they just have a different system of etiquette? Are they really as violent as elvish propaganda makes them out to be? An Orc historian explains to the party that the orcs took up banditry only after having been forced from the fertile agricultural lands into the wastelands and mountains. If there is a Dark Lord promising them liberation and restitution, he won’t seem dark to them. An Orc chieftain tells the party, “Our historical resentments have been exploited again and again, but now our race is maturing in consciousness. We will no longer be manipulated into hating Elves, Men, or Dwarves. We have learned to distinguish between justice and revenge, and we understand that no people can thrive for long if others are oppressed. This is what our own oppression has taught us.”

I have called The Lord of the Rings a pseudo-mythology, but in fact it draws on one of humanity’s most potent mythological themes: the war of good against evil. To better understand it, I have turned in the last two years to the work of the philosopher Rene Girard and in particular, his notion of sacrificial violence. Its basic template is this: In times of rising social tension, blood feuds, and escalating cycles of violence, society’s warring factions will turn on a scapegoat or class of scapegoats, often portraying them as degenerate, filthy, and not-quite-human (or sometimes as more-than-human). They become the receptacles of all that is going wrong in the world. Their violent removal unites the population, discharging their hatreds through a victim who cannot retaliate, and satisfying the demand that something be done, that evil be removed. (For a much deeper exploration of Girard’s work in the context of the pandemic, read this series of five essays.)

Obviously, Tolkien’s portrayal of orcs fits the Girardian formula—a formula we see again and again in the dehumanization of the victims of genocide, lynching, witch hunts, slavery, colonialism, and war. They are filthy, swarthy, uncouth, brutal, evil, and altogether less than human. They are the source of contagion. Don’t associate with them, lest you be contaminated! (You’re not an Orc-lover, are you?) Remove them from society and our problems will be solved.

I will let the reader apply this lens to current politics. Left and Right deploy Girard’s formula in equal measure. Who are the orcs for you? Who is the evil to your good? Whom shall we slay (figuratively, perhaps, through denunciation or canceling) in our campaign to rid the world of evil?

Underneath the fury of the sacrificial mob lurks a primal dread. Let us descend into the dungeon to face it.

The first monster we encounter is the lurking knowledge that with but a twist of fate, any one of us could be among the mob’s victims. Any one of us could be mistaken for a bad person. Any one of us could be mistaken for an Orc. The fear is so deep in the human being as to be nearly instinctual. We put a figure to the wind, trying to discern which way it is blowing, what opinions we can display to safely group ourselves among the Acceptable and to distance ourselves as far as possible from whoever is marked off for cancellation from society (as soft on communism, soft on terror, a white supremacist, a misogynist, a this-phobe or that-phobe, a conspiracy theorist, a Saddam apologist, an Assad apologist, a Putin apologist, an anti-vaxxer, etc.) Politically savvy people are those who are especially attuned to the latest shift of the wind. They fill our elite institutions, particularly the media. That is how orthodoxy is maintained. The orthodox, with exquisite perceptiveness, sense who the next orcs are. Without needing directives from on high, they fall into a lockstep from which any deviance is social and career suicide. In 2003, no one had to explicitly tell journalists or politicians: “Do not question Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, or you will be fired.” During Covid, no one had to order them to parrot CDC orthodoxy. They knew what to do, just as in grade school they knew what to wear, whom to like, and whom to shun.

But let’s explore the dungeon of the social and personal unconscious yet more deeply. At its deepest level lurks the most terrifying monster of all. It is the fear not only that the mob will turn on me, but that the mob will be right to do so. It is that I am unacceptable. That I am evil. That I only pretend to be an acceptable, full human being, but that in reality, it is I who am the Orc.

This monster of self-rejection drives a craving to source acceptance externally, making its subject all the more vulnerable to mob psychology. The prospect of rejection stirs not only the terror of mob violence, but an existential dread as well. To be cast out of the web of relationship, to be abandoned by God, utterly destitute of love.

I had the opportunity to engage this monster last year after publication of my essay Mob Morality and the Unvaxxed. The wave of denunciations and cancellations that followed spun me through cycles of anger, grief, indignation, and dread. But what was most enlightening was that it revealed a part of myself that secretly agreed with my accusers. I agreed, not with the substance of their accusations (I never seriously believed myself to be an anti-Semite, for instance), but with the spirit of them: that I was something unacceptable, unlovable, despicable; that I was an Orc.

The revelation of this part of myself was an opportunity for healing. I know I am not alone in carrying a wound of self-rejection. It is rife in modern culture, even in civilization itself. Running away from it, we might project it onto various Others, condemning them in hopes of extirpating within ourselves the evil they represent. This pattern has generated endless war, persecution, and genocide throughout history. As it becomes visible in its personal or social expression, we have the opportunity to heal it. This is the maturing consciousness the Orc chieftain speaks of. Patterns that come into conscious awareness, we are no longer doomed to repeat.

I doubt, at this stage of my life, that I will ever again be a dungeon master and have the chance to run a campaign of orc rehabilitation. Then again, what is a dungeon master, really? He is a weaver of narratives. Each of us participates in generating the story lines in which we all live. We can create a much more joyful drama if we look more closely at its Orc characters and redeem them from the subhuman condition into which they’ve been cast.

This applies to the inner Orc too. Can you sense his, or her, presence? A miserable outcast, raging in the wastes and dungeons, deprived of good lands, trapped in a life of furtive banditry on the borders of consciousness? What I do to him, inevitably I do to his image in the world. Enough. Let’s get to know the Orc.


1 thought on “I, Orc

  1. What is Good and what is Evil? Up till age 11 I read everything by anybody in sci-fi. Then I read the Bible, and then I read The Source, and then I read the Bible again. Then I read some more and some more and some more. Then I realized that I had been lied to by everyone except my mother and father who let me find the Truth on my own. I no longer read fiction. Except for the Bible which is what most people think it is. It is not. Tolkien? Who’s he? He’s a dead man holding up some earth that is soaked in blood. I hope your son makes it to 11, but, I doubt it. Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin!

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