Waking in Middle-earth, Orc Origins, and What to Read if You Like LOTR
Reader Mailbag Plus a Reader LEGO Rivendell Review
Once a month I do a Reader Mailbag and answer questions from you, readers! We have some great ones today about traveling to Middle-earth, the lifecycle of orcs, and what else to read if you like LOTR. Plus I have a detailed look at the LEGO Rivendell set. Let’s dive in!
A lot of people fantasize about finding Middle-Earth. What do you yourself think would happen if you woke up one day in Bree, or Gondor, or outside the gates of Moria?
—Dreaming of Middle-earth
Dreaming of Middle-earth,
As someone raised on The Chronicles of Narnia, you can bet that I was one of those kids who opened up every wardrobe or cupboard or even slightly mysterious-looking door just in case there was a magical kingdom that was waiting on the other side. So to wake up and find myself in Middle-earth would be a dream come true!
Of course, I have all kinds of questions about how exactly this would work. Do I know Westron, the Common Speech? Or perhaps Sindarin? Let’s assume at least Common, because I don’t think I’m getting very far without being able to communicate.
My first thought is that I would want to explore and travel all throughout Middle-earth, especially seeing the famous sites from the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I’d most likely have to find some way to support myself on my travels. A combination of some of my talents and interests might make being a minstrel or bard a natural fit. Perhaps in my travels I get caught up in some adventure along the way, but even just seeing and exploring the world of Middle-earth itself would be more than enough to keep me happy.
If there was just one place that I could visit during my time there, it would have to be Rivendell. The Last Homely House seems like the perfect combination of comfort, beauty, deep and rich history, and connection to the familiar stories to make for an amazing experience.
What is the lifecycle of an orc? They are twisted descendants of an elvish lineage. Are they immortal, unless they die by violence? Are there female orcs who give birth to baby orcs? Tolkien describes them as being “bred” by Morgoth, after all.
—Orc Lore Student
Orc Lore Student,
Tolkien never (to my knowledge) fully outlined the lifecycle of an orc. Even in his latest writings on the subject, he was still wrestling with one major underlying issue that he never satisfactorily resolved: what are the origins of orcs? Over the course of his life Tolkien changed the answer several times. You mention in your question "they are of elvish ancestry," which is the most well-known of the versions: it’s the version from the published version of The Silmarillion, the explanation Peter Jackson went with in The Fellowship of the Ring, and the version that Amazon’s The Rings of Power is using too. In this version, orcs were once elves, such as Rings of Power’s Adar, who were captured and corrupted into a ruined and twisted form of life.
But there are several other explanations. In his early writings, Tolkien considered the possibility of orcs being made by Morgoth—“bred…of the subterranean heats and slime”—or being some form of lower-level Maiar (spirits like the wizards or the balrogs) who had taken orcish form. But the after writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien grew more and more convinced of a final theory: that orcs had to be corrupted men, not elves.1
Several principles led him to this conclusion. First was his conviction that only Eru, the creator God of Arda, could make life. We see this illustrated in Frodo’s comments to Sam in “The Tower of Cirith Ungol”:
The Shadow that bred them [orcs] can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures.
The second was that orcs were not immortal: “they could be slain, and they were subject to disease; but apart from these ills they died and were not immortal…indeed, they appear to have been by nature short-lived compared to the span of Men of higher race, such as the Edain.”
So if they are corrupted, not made, by the powers of evil and also not immortal, how could they be descended from elves? Inbreeding with men and a fading away due to their corruption is one option, with their lifespans falling over the centuries and generations. But Tolkien grew so convinced that being corrupted men was the best solution that he even toyed with having men awake much earlier in his timeline to fix the chronological issues that change in origin would introduce. “This then,” comments Christopher, his son, “was my father’s final view of the question: Orcs were bred from Men.” Tolkien ultimately never revised his earlier works to reflect such a change, however, so the corrupted elves origin was published in The Silmarillion.
All that said, we can still surmise some general facts about an orc’s lifecycle.
They are, whether they are corrupted men or elves, born. This assumes male and female orcs, and yes, baby orcs. Eat your heart out, Baby Yoda, there's a new cutest creature around. And they are not immortal: they die from violence, disease, or—apparently—old age.
Are there any other series of books or genres I should look into if I like LOTR?
—Searching For My Next Read
Searching For My Next Read,
Oh yes, there are so many wonderful books and series of books to look into if you like The Lord of the Rings. Here’s a few of my favorites.
A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin The first of the books in the Earthsea Cycle follows a boy named Ged’s journey to become a wizard. This series deserves the influence and place it’s given in the fantasy genre and is so original and thoughtful.
The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan—If you’re looking for a series that’s about as close as you can come to LOTR, it’s hard to get closer than The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. Jordan is obviously and heavily influenced by Tolkien, so much so that the first book, The Eye of the World, is almost a “sure you can copy my homework just change up a few things so the teacher won’t notice” sort of situation.2 But after the first book it really comes into its own, though Tolkien's influence is still evident. Heads up: this is a long series (14 volumes!).
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson. Brandon Sanderson is one of the most prolific authors I’ve ever come across and one of the biggest names in fantasy currently. The vast majority of his works take place within a shared universe called the Cosmere, which is filled with numerous worlds with their own intricate magic systems, peoples, and histories. The main series is The Stormlight Archive, but starting with the first Mistborn trilogy is a good way to dip your toes in and see if you like him before seriously investing.
The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin. Simply one of the most well-written and original trilogies that I’ve ever read. The worldbuilding is so impressive and distinct, the story is captivating, and the series gets better from the first entry through the last.
These are all solidly fantasy works except for the Broken Earth trilogy, which is halfway between fantasy and sci-fi, or science fantasy. If you want to go all the way to science fiction, which many fans of LOTR enjoy as well, some quick recommendations I can provide would be Dune by Frank Herbert, Foundation by Isaac Asimov, and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
What about you, readers? Any more suggestions about books or genres to check out for someone who likes The Lord of the Rings?
What did paid subscribers get this week?
I’m so glad that you asked! (Okay, this question may have been a plant). Last week paid subscribers got an essay, New Life, in Defiance of Death, on planting promises of life amidst death and the relationship between planting and hope in scenes from The Return of The King, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and The Rings of Power.
Paid subscribers also get access to the paid subscriber discussions, which is where all of the Reader Mailbag questions from last month and this month have come from!3 All that and more for just $5 a month or $39.99 a year (that's 33% off!), which helps keep this newsletter heading straight to your inbox every week. Hit the button below for more info! And thanks!
Subscriber Feature: The LEGO Homely House
Speaking of Rivendell earlier, I highlighted a lavish new LEGO Rivendell set that was about to go on sale in my February Five Faves. One of the subscribers to this newsletter, Laura, ended up getting one of the sets and did a mini-review of it for me after she assembled it. Here are her thoughts!
Last month I had the joy of putting together the new LEGO Rivendell set. This set was super detailed and intricate and very fun to put together. There are so many fun, amazing details that I’ve collected below. I especially love the character figures included in the set: they are so cute and so fun to move around within Rivendell. My other favorite thing was the way they used LEGO pieces to create some truly beautiful, intricate architecture of the building, such as in the gazebo or the white columns of Rivendell. I also loved the many plants and trees around the buildings and how cleverly LEGO creators are able to make plants out of pieces of plastic. In the pictures below, I’ve provided some examples and photographs of some of my favorite parts of the LEGO Rivendell set.
The completed set.
“You shall be the Fellowship of the Ring.”
Check out the rest of Laura’s photos and descriptions.
Thank you, Laura! I loved all the photos and commentary, especially the many details that I hadn’t seen in any other post or review of the set (like the SECRET TUNNEL)!
That’s all for today, friends! Have a wonderful end of the week and weekend.
Special shoutout and thank you to Catherine V, Rachael B, Chante, Jacob S, Nick R, Mikhail S, Hannah, Brody K, Bucky, Miguel G, and Joanna R for becoming paid subscribers this month! This is a reader-supported newsletter so if you enjoy these updates each week, please consider supporting this Substack by upgrading to a paid subscription.
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For this section, I’m drawing mainly on Tolkein’s comments in essays VIII–X in the “Myths Transformed” section of Morgoth's Ring.
A small group of dwellers of an idyllic village follow a wizard on a journey of great importance and are pursued by terrifying riders in black cloaks commanding legions of orcs, er I mean trollocs, who are hunting for something greatly desired by the Dark One, who has returned centuries after being defeated for what the heroes thought was the final time.
Thank you to all who submitted questions!