In this article, we will show you what are the differences between orcs and goblins in Lord of the Rings, or better to say, J. R. R. Tolkien’s world of the Middle-earth.
History about orcs and goblins in Middle-earth
Origins and early years
The Orcs were bred by Melkor in mockery of the Elves, sometime during the Great Darkness.
It is unclear exactly when Orcs were created, but it certainly happened before the War for Sake of the Elves in his stronghold of Utumno. Whether the Orcs were at this time a capable fighting force against the host of Valinor is not known. But at least some of them survived this war, probably hidden in the deep vaults of Angband, and multiplied, waiting for their master.
When Melkor (now known as Morgoth) returned to Middle-earth, he created new hordes of Orcs and invaded Beleriand, where the First Battle of Beleriand took place. Orcs also fought in Dagor-nuin-Giliath.
Orcs appear in the First Age as the core force of Morgoth. Hundreds of thousands of Orcs were bred in Angband to participate in the Battles of Beleriand, which lasted 587 years.
Orcs first appear in the First Age in the Battle of the Lammoth, where they were defeated by Fingolfin and his Noldor. Orcs participated in battles such as the Dagor Aglareb, Dagor Bragollach, Nirnaeth Arnoediad, Fall of the Falas, and finally in the War of Wrath, where they were almost extinguished. Those that survived the defeat fled eastwards and hid probably in the Mountains of Angmar and the Ered Mithrin.
Around the year S.A. 1000 Sauron reappeared, took the land of Mordor as his realm and started the construction of Barad-dûr. It is likely that most of his servants were Orcs at this time that he had gathered under his command. Still for a long time Sauron’s foul servants did not play an important role, for the Dark Lord had chosen a more subtle way to overthrow the free people by creating the Rings of Power.
During the War of the Elves and Sauron, in S.A. 1700, Orcs formed the main power of Sauron’s host. Despite the immeasurable number of Orcs, Sauron was defeated by the united hosts of Elves and Númenóreans. Still Sauron was powerful east of the Misty Mountains and the Orcs that inhabited the mountains and the eastern lands multiplied.
The Orcs of the Misty Mountains started a war against the Dwarves, resulting in the First Sack of Gundabad and its occupation by the Orcs. Finally, Orcs were the core force of Sauron during the War of the Last Alliance, and fought in great battles such as the Battle of Dagorlad and the Siege of Barad-dûr.
During the Third Age, Orcs were the standard troops of the Witch-king of Angmar and Sauron (both in Mordor and in Dol Guldur).
In Angmar, Orcs fought in the Angmar War. Years later, they invaded Eriador under the leadership of the Necromancer.
The Orcs of the Misty Mountains, one of the few (more or less) independent Orcish societies, and their leader Azog started out the War of the Dwarves and Orcs, and after their defeat they retreated in their caves. They appeared again in T.A. 2941, when the Battle of Five Armies took place.
The Orcs of Mordor fought in major battles during the War of the Ring, such as the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, but the majority of Mordor’s forces were destroyed or scattered at the Battle of the Morannon. Sporadic fighting in the following weeks led to the Orcs finally being driven out of the western end of Mordor, though it is unclear how many Orcs Sauron had in his armies, and it is also unclear how many Orcs survived after Sauron defeat in the War of Ring, but you can find out more about it on our link.
The Orcs in Dol Guldur remained in Mirkwood until the Fall of Dol Guldur, one of the last battles of the War of the Ring.
Fourth Age and beyond
The fate of the Orcs after the Third Age is unknown. Though many of Sauron’s Orcs fought on and were slain in the weeks following the Battle of the Morannon, the true number of Sauron’s hosts is unclear, as are the numbers of Orcs not within Mordor that may still inhabit the rest of Middle-earth. It is at least known that the Orcs of Moria either fled or were slain by the Fourth Age, as it is mentioned that the Dwarves managed to retake Moria and the mines within it.
It is certain all Orcs were dependent on the Dark Lords in various ways: after the War of Wrath, the Orcs were confused and dismayed without Morgoth, and were easily scattered by their enemies. In the millennia after his defeat and banishment from Arda, they were without a leader and degenerated into small, quarrelsome tribes hiding in wild places, such as the Misty Mountains and the Mountains of Angmar. Orcs remained a threat to travelers and isolated settlements, and when united could pose a great regional threat, but they could never amount to the force they were under Morgoth. Only when Sauron returned to power did they begin to reclaim their old power. The same happened after Sauron’s defeat by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men: only under the Witch-King’s command, and when Sauron returned as the Necromancer of Mirkwood, did the Orcs become a real danger for all of Middle-earth again. Orcs were warlike and often cruel, fighting with reckless ferocity and delighting in the slaughter and torture of their foes; many had a cowardly nature however, and were often regarded as inferior, though far more expendable, than the soldiers of Men, Elves, and Dwarves.
It is unknown if the Orcs were immortal like the Elves. There is, in any case, a hint for a long lifespan in the story of two of the most famous Orc-chieftains: Azog and Bolg. Bolg, being the son of Azog, was the chieftain of the Orcs who attacked Erebor in the Battle of Five Armies in T.A. 2941. Azog himself was killed in the Battle of Azanulbizar in T.A. 2799, so Bolg was at least 150 years old.
Orcs were described as smaller in stature than Men on average, strong but crooked in frame and bow-legged. One “huge orc-chieftain” was described as “almost Man-high”, but some must have been of a similar size to Hobbits (Frodo and Sam succeeded in disguising themselves as Orcs in Mordor). Their overall appearance varied: they had long arms and fanged mouths; Tolkien describes them as “swart” or “sallow”, although one in Moria is “black-skinned” and others are described generally as “black” (possibly not a reference to skin colour).
Kinds of orcs
The Fellowship usually encountered the large soldier-Orcs bred for war, and sometimes the “snaga” variety which were more geared towards being labourers. Another type is referred to as “snufflers”, smaller, black-skinned Orcs with wide nostrils, who excelled in tracking. Despite the smaller size, one snuffler was able to skillfully kill a soldier-orc when they got into a disagreement.
The word Orc is said to be the “form of the name that other races had for this foul people as it was in the language of Rohan”.
In his late, post-Lord of the Rings writings, Tolkien preferred the spelling Ork. It is also possible that the word is a Common Tongue Version of ‘orch’, the Sindarin word for Orc. The original sense of the word seems to be “bogey”, “bogeyman”, that is, something that provokes fear, as seen in the Quenya cognate urko, pl. urqui.
Tolkien derived the word orc from Old English believing it refers to a kind of evil spirits, which in turn is thought to derive from Latin Orcus “Hades”, although Tolkien doubted this etymology. He also thought it survives in the modern language for sea-beasts, such as the Orca Whale.
Orc is an Old English word that refers mainly to a kind of metal cup (from Latin Urceus). However, in an 11th-century glossary, this entry was conflated with another entry which refers to evil giants such as þyrs and other monsters, also glossed in Latin as Orcus. This merge of the two entries made many philologists of the previous centuries, like Tolkien, to believe that Orc was an actual Old English word that refers to any kind of evil creature from the underworld.
The word Orcnéas is once found only in Beowulf (lines 112-113) and is cited as an example of the word “Orc” in Old English text. Actually its meaning is not clear, and it is thought to refer to corpses (néas) from the Underworld.
“Orcs” in Tolkien’s languages
Tolkien said that one of the reason of choosing “Orc” over “Goblin” was the similarity with his fictional languages. Indeed most Elvish, Mannish and other words for Orc, are similar to the English word.
The basic Primitive Quendian root, from which the words for Orc derive, is RUKU (said to refer to any “bogey” that scared the Elves):
- Quenya orco (pl. Orkor); Exilic Quenya urko (pl. orkor and orqui)
- Sindarin: orch/Orch (pl. yrch/Yrch, class pl. Orchoth/orchoth; glamhoth
- Nandorin: ūriʃ
- Adûnaic: urku, urkhu
- Westron: orka
- Black Speech: uruk
- Khuzdul: Rukhs (pl. Rakhās), possibly derived from an unknown Avarin word of the same meaning
- Drúadan language: gorgûn (“orc-folk”; the form gorgûn is perhaps plural of an unknown singular form)
In the earliest versions of Qenya, Tolkien had words such as “Ork (orq-) pl. Orqi and fem. “orqindi”.
In Noldorin, the earlier version of Sindarin, the word for Orc is the same: orch (pl yrch). The Gnomish word for “one of a tribe of the orcs. a goblin” is said to be Gong.
Goblin is a folk word which according to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English is probably derived from the Anglo-French gobelin a diminutive of gobel (cf. kobold). William D.B. Loos notes that goblin is a Romance-derived word, unlike other Germanic words preferred by Tolkien.
“Goblin” in Tolkien’s languages
In the Etymologies, the Elvish names used to translate “goblin” derive from root ÓROK and are:
- Quenya: orko (pl. orqi)
- Noldorin: orch (pl yrch, archaic yrchy)
- Danian: urc (pl. yrc)
- Doriathrin: urch (pl. urchin)
In an early linguistic writing, Tolkien translated the Gnomish word Gong as “one of a tribe of the orcs. a goblin.”
Orcs and goblins
The term goblin was used primarily in The Hobbit but also in The Lord of the Rings where it is used synonymously with “Orc”.
“Goblin” is an English word, whereas “Orc” is Old English, the language used by Tolkien to represent Rohirric. Thus, there is no difference between Orcs and Goblins.
“The word as far as I am concerned actually derived from Old English orc, demon, but only because of its phonetic suitability.”― J.R.R. Tolkien
But, are orcs and goblins really the same thing?
The answer is that it depends on when in time Tolkien wrote the story. Various stories depict them as clearly different creatures, while others depict them as being the same.
Christopher Tolkien notes that whilst in the Tale of Tinúviel the author clearly differentiates between “goblins and Orcs”, the two terms appear to be synonymous in the Tale of Turambar.
And here again, there are two conflicting definitions from two separate books of the Elvish language:
The Quenya Lexicon from approximately 1915 defines Orc as meaning “monster, demon”, and the Gnomish Lexicon dated 1917 defines Orc as “goblin”, alongside a definition of Gong as “one of a tribe of the Orcs, a goblin”. Christopher Tolkien also notes, with interest, that in the Lexicon, the word Gnome (later Noldor) is an emendation from Goblin
To summarize: they are, as of right now, the same creature. They were not originally intended to be, Tolkien later changed his mind. There is direct evidence of this, foremost is that his own son clearly says that he had originally intended them to be different.
“Are they the same thing in LotR and The Hobbit.” To answer, here is a quote from Gandalf in The Hobbit:
“Before you could get round Mirkwood in the North you would be right among the slopes of the Grey Mountains, and they are simply stiff with goblins, hobgoblins, and orcs of the worst description.”— Gandalf
Again, here we have the answer depending on when Tolkien wrote the stories, as was said above. At the time of writing The Hobbit, Tolkien had considered them different, based on this and statements like this. In The Lord of the Rings, there are statements to indicate that they are the same.