The Grey HavensHome
Middle-earth Balrogs Dwarves Elves Hobbits Humans Orcs Else Songs & Tales Rings Tolkien URLs Pictures Awards Feedback Bookshop Search Navigation toolbar

What was the relationship between Orcs and Goblins?

From: The Tolkien FAQ by William D.B. Loos

They are different names for the same race of creatures. Of the two, "Orc" is the correct one. This has been a matter of widespread debate and misunderstanding, mostly resulting from the usage in the The Hobbit (Tolkien had changed his mind about it by The Lord of the Rings but the confusion in the earlier book was made worse by inconsistent backwards modifications). There are a couple of statements in the The Hobbit which, if taken literally, suggest that Orcs are a subset of goblins. If we are to believe the indications from all other areas of Tolkien's writing, this is not correct. These are: some fairly clear statements in letters, the evolution of his standard terminology (see next paragraph), and the actual usage in The Lord of the Rings, all of which suggest that "Orc" was the true name of the race. (The pedigrees in Tolkien: The Illustrated Encyclopedia are thoroughly inaccurate and undependable.)

What happened was this. The creatures so referred to were invented along with the rest of Tolkien's subcreation during the writing of the Book of Lost Tales (the pre-The Silmarillion). His usage in the early writing is somewhat varied but the movement is away from "goblin" and towards "orc". It was part of a general trend away from the terminology of traditional folklore (he felt that the familiar words would call up the wrong associations in the readers' minds, since his creations were quite different in specific ways). For the same general reasons he began calling the Deep Elves "Noldor" rather than "Gnomes", and avoided "Faerie" altogether. (On the other hand, he was stuck with "Wizards", an "imperfect" translation of Istari ('the Wise'), "Elves", and "Dwarves"; he did say once that he would have preferred "dwarrow", which, so he said, was more historically and linguistically correct, if he'd thought of it in time...)

In the The Hobbit, which originally was unconnected with the The Silmarillion, he used the familiar term "goblin" for the benefit of modern readers. By the time of The Lord of the Rings, however, he'd decided that "goblin" wouldn't do - Orcs were not storybook goblins (see above). (No doubt he also felt that "goblin", being Romance-derived, had no place in a work based so much on Anglo-Saxon and Northern traditions in general.) Thus, in The Lord of the Rings, the proper name of the race is "Orcs" (capital "O"), and that name is found in the index along with Ents, Men, etc., while "goblin" is not in the index at all. There are a handful of examples of "goblin" being used (always with a small "g") but it seems in these cases to be a kind of slang for Orcs.

Tolkien's explanation inside the story was that the "true" name of the creatures was Orc (an anglicised version of Sindarin Orch , pl. Yrch). As the "translator" of the ancient manuscripts, he "substituted" "Goblin" for "Orch" when he translated Bilbo's diary, but for The Red Book he reverted to a form of the ancient word.

[The actual source of the word "orc" is Beowulf: "orc-nass", translated as "death-corpses". It has nothing to do with cetaceans.]

Everything you don't want to know about Orcs and Goblins.
To the top
This site is maintained and copyrighted (c) 1996-2002, by Cirdan.
All rights reserved. Hosted by