Posted by: Jess Riley | November 6, 2008

Theme Week Orcs: Come Back With Your Shield Or On It

I considered this post independently of Sean’s most recent post, but something he said got the ball rolling even more so, and now there’s a point that I have to discuss, before I move on to anything else.

When we consider the orc people, we consider that the genders have more or less equal expectations in warfare; the women have just as much expected of them as the men, although opinions differ on whether this is an acceptance of equality or an expectation; these are somewhat different things.

However, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know a lot about the orcs, and while I had been planning to do a lot of research on this prior to starting my post, Sean put in a particular point that I want to attend to first of all.

Even Thrall’s leadership of diplomacy has not blunted it; Thrall is a warchief, and expects his soldiers to deliver. And as he has worked to destroy the patriarchal bent of the society, even orcish women are now expected to be as strong as the men.

Now expected to be as strong as the men? Well, WoWWiki, my go-to guide when I’m not sure on a piece of canon, states that the society is equal between genders and that there is no discrimination – certainly, that was about what I thought looking at it from the outside, but Sean’s assertion that Thrall himself is responsible for this opens up a new perspective.

The Burning Crusade and associated source material puts Thrall’s escape from Durnholde Keep at only seven years before the commencement of Burning Crusade. Seven years. If indeed it was him that brought about this equality between the sexes within the orcs, how many of the orcs really and truly believe that this is right? For some kind of comparison, consider the proportion of the population who believe in women staying ‘pure’ until marriage, even though I have been assured that this is an out-dated viewpoint that has not existed societally in several years. There’s no way that, if equality between the sexes is, indeed, a very new development, that it could have swept through the population so fast.

There’s two possibilities here; one is that Sean was wrong, and that this equality between the sexes dates back much further than Thrall. Alternatively, he’s right, and it is a very recent development, but it hasn’t sunk as far into orc culture as we’d like to think it has; there are still male orcs that disagree with it, female orcs who aren’t comfortable with it. For all that this is legally the case, socially it’s taking a while to catch up.

Now, for all that I’ve talked about it this far, that isn’t what I wanted to talk about.

Let’s go back to the view of orc society as very equal between the sexes, where men and women are equally permitted to pursue careers and equally expected to answer the call of battle – the culture, in short, that we’re most comfortable looking at.

Sean and I both have drawn the comparison many times with Spartan culture; this is true of both their approach to battle (every able-bodied fighter into the fray), their approach to the weaknesses in the tribes (it contaminates the strength and is met with exile and, most likely, death as a result) and so on. The designs of the cities, while clearly derived from tribal African images, have some Spartan influences. This is true, in particular, of the Warsong, less so of the Frostwolves.

But alright, let’s run with this Spartan idea for now – one of the things I’m sure we all remember from history class, or from pop culture for that matter, is the stock image of the wife who raises the household and bids her husband and sons farewell as they leave for battle with the parting line, “Come back with your shield, or on it.”

We can imagine someone saying that, in the orc culture. I can imagine Orc A bidding farewell to Orc B with these words.

But given the equality between the sexes, it’s certainly not the woman saying it to her parting sons and husband. It’s probably not the husband saying it to his parting wife. Who gets left behind, then, when the orcs go into battle? Surely someone does – the small children need someone to care for them, surely. Now, the orcs traditionally have a ‘it takes a village’ mentality, but how far does this spread?

So in a culture with no discrimination between the sexes, and not as strictly defined gender roles (though I imagine that, to an extent, some must exist; maybe that’s just my Western eyes looking at it, though), and where any able-bodied person, not just man, goes into battle… who is it that bids farewell to whom?

I’m inclined to think, looking at all this, that it’s not a matter of gender so much as it is of necessity. A pregnant orc female, and surely this must happen from time to time, probably can’t go into battle, at least certainly not in the later months. A hardened veteran whose arms have gone weak with time, might stay behind to better lead the youth into the future in the absence of the fighters. Any other weaklings would probably have been left behind (unless Thrall’s influence caused a wave of compassion; I’m led to believe this would be the case, but recall how recently Thrall even came into the picture) long ago, but there must be those who can’t go into battle and yet stay with the tribe for other reasons.

This doesn’t answer the question of who it is that bids farewell to the warriors, not really, but it does answer my question in one sense. We like to think of the women farewelling the menfolk to some extent, even when we’re told that it’s not that kind of society (or at least I do; I can’t speak for anyone else), and I think I need reminding from time to time that we can’t go into this thinking like humans. We have to think like orcs, taking into account all the recent (dramatic!) shifts in their culture and what this means for a race of warrior-like people.

In other words, calling them ‘African-inspired’ or ‘Spartan-inspired’ only goes so far. We can’t think of it in human terms; it’s called a fantasy universe for a reason.

Wow, I sure got off-track there. It’s amazing where my posts end up going when I just let myself ramble on and on until I find a point.



  1. “Wow, I sure got off-track there. It’s amazing where my posts end up going when I just let myself ramble on and on until I find a point.”

    Haha, but I like when you ramble; its fun. And even with that, you still managed to get your points across. Particularly the one, of not using our human perspective as a sole way of looking how non humans act. And that all we can do is use our perspective as a basic guide line, then look at the races history..etc and shape who they are into something that is simultaneously relatable to us so we can play them well, but also distinct enough to feel that we are in fact another race.

    As for the topic, if we are to assume that Thrall did instill this new found “equality”. Then we can assume that most of the culture still more so favors men over women. But at the same time, due to them overwhelmingly favoring strength more than anything as Sean pointed out previously, I say who stays & who goes is primarily chosen on who is the strongest. So if a man was the weaker due to injury or maybe shell shock or whatever, the woman be chosen to go into battle. Because while the culture still primarily want the male to go, they understand it be best for the whole, that the strongest goes, whoever that may be at the time.

    But as this whole thing may be new with Thrall, the likelihood of the females being strong enough for the males to subvert their ingrained beliefs, probably be a rare occasion. As females up until now, would not be raised as an equal, and in general would not be driven to be as strong as males, because even if they were; they still be overlooked mostly. Making it a what’s the point situation. But now that there is a point, I am sure people playing younger female orcs, can justify their character’s strength and equality amongst the men of their kind, as well as them striving to be strong as males years back. Though those playing older females, be hard pressed to express this as easily. As it be much rarer for the times they grew up in.

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