In a letter to a potential film producer, Tolkien explains orcs as "degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types."
- J.R.R. Tolkien quoted in an article on salon.com.
The Lord of the Rings, by popular vote, is one of the best novels of the 20th century. It is not a great work of literature. It is a great story, an amazing myth, a boy’s own adventure tale, an epic history and a cracking good read. Even if better fantasy novels are written, they will be within the genre that Tolkien popularised. To make something as original, you would have to create your own genre just about from scratch.
In Middle-earth good is good and evil is evil and most of the time it’s not hard to tell what side people are on. Heroes are noble, kind and caring to everyone except evil. Gandalf, a being of vastly more power and knowledge than the hobbits, may become annoyed with them on stressful occasions but is never contemptuous or dismissive. He is kindly and always acknowledges their importance.
The villains are nasty to everyone including their fellow villains. Mordor would be more effective if the orcs didn't squabble amongst each other, but that's not their nature. They wouldn't be completely evil if they helped one another except under threat of punishment.
All orcs are evil, without exception. Genetically, they must be an evil race. Tolkien did not invent his myths, he worked from European sources, and as shown in his own words, that includes the myth of inferior races.
Tolkien is classist. Listen to that mp3 (also from salon.com) of him reading from The Two Towers, and compare the accents of Sam and Frodo. Frodo sounds like he went to Cambridge, and his servant Sam sounds like an escapee from Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch ('an you think you had it tuff … we had to take t' Wun Ring all the way to t' Cracks o' Doom). Within the races the emphasis is on bloodline and heritage as a marker of innate nobility and worth.
The Lord of the Rings can be read as a classist parable - Elves are noble, men are middle class, the hobbits are hardworking farmers and honest villagers, and the orcs are the industrial underclass, the Morlocks.
But The Lord of the Rings is not an enquiry into morals, it is not didactic: it is an adventure story. Even having the heroes feel sorrow at the fact that orcs cannot change their nature would detract from that.
Just about the only moral one can draw from The Lord of the Rings is wouldn't it be great if it were easy to tell what was right and what was wrong? Wouldn't it be great if we could be absolutely sure who was evil?
But we can't and much of the time, wrong is relative and evil is done with good intentions, and it is intermingled with good.
A political outlook in the real world that is limited to good and evil, right and wrong is at best simplistic and at worst dangerous. It makes for a great novel, but please do not confuse it with reality.
Watching the LOTR movies, particularly the scenes of hill-men and orcs invading Rohan, I became of a possible reading of that part of the story: it is a history, told as a myth from the winner's point of view, where the winners are noble and their enemy foul. It is a story, like almost all of human history, of ethnic conflict over land.
Rook disagrees with the classist reading: Clearly, Aragorn is more "noble" than Legolas, as is Frodo moreso than Boromir. There is also the issue of class hierarchies within...
Yes, but the races of middle-earth do stereotype rather easily, don't you think? As for the issues of class hierarchies within, at the end of the book it is Sam who is primed to become mayor of The Shire, while Frodo sails away to the Grey Havens. Sam is therefore the epitome of hobbithood, whist Frodo is an unusual one.
Eco says: might want to address the passage in RotK where Tolkien describes men with "black skin and red tongues" in the battle before Minas Tirith...
unperson has further commentary that I don't quite have an opinion on, so I pass it on to you as is: I'm not sure I see a lot of support for the idea of LOTR as a classist tale. While certainly class structures are seen as important, fun is continually poked at the class structure and focus on heredity of the hobbits. It could well be argued that Sam, who is probably one of the lowest in class, is the most noble, selfless, and courageous character in the book, though he is not the protagonist.
I do think that class and heredity are important in that world as they are important in ours (and many times so in days past); however, I think that is a societal norm displayed, not a value judgment. Both in LOTR and in the hobbit, there seem to be many instances in which the ideas of meaningful differences between the "races" (e.g. dwarves and elves) are undermined.