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They're strange. They're foreign. They come from the East. Maybe it's because they're Always Chaotic Evil, or maybe we're just next in a line of civilizations to be conquered, but they're out to get us.
This trope arose a long time ago from bad experiences and sometimes just general xenophobia. While the more bigoted aspect of the trope is no longer fashionable, it still survives thanks to Follow the Leader and the need for an easy source of danger and disposable enemies. Internal life of the hordes isn't usually depicted much, if at all. They are foreign, they are evil, and that's all that matters.
"The East" comes from the typical placement of the "others" in Real Life Western Europe. The usual candidates for the hordes include Mongols, Muslims, Huns, Hungarians, Scythians, or Russians, or Fantasy Counterpart Cultures of them. Like several of these cultures, they're likely to have been Born in the Saddle. They'll sometimes look stereotypically Asian, but they aren't criminal masterminds like the Yellow Peril - they're just a mass of Mooks born to be mooks.
A culture can even be on both sides of the trope. Russians are a source of Hordes for Western Europe, but they themselves endured Mongol control for some centuries - it's a popular trope in Russian folk tales.
The Hordes From the East will often act like The Horde, but they don't have to. Hordes From the East will always be presented as a feared foreign danger, but their behavior can vary. There's a chance that they don't pillage at all, or that they use clever strategies in battle instead of just brute force.
Some cultures have their own tropes involving attacks from a particular direction. For example, an attack would have always come from the North/West in China, from the North-West in India, and from the North in Rome. Another variant is to have hordes ffom up north, Vikings or Norse barbarians.
- The Lord of the Rings, probably the Trope Codifier for this trope in the fantasy genre: "And the drawing of the scimitars of the Southrons was like a glitter of stars". The humans alligned with Sauron aren't treated as inherently evil the way the orcs are, but as the story is told from the point of view of people fighting on the other side of a war, their humanity is only occasionally acknowledged and they're frequently treated as just a faceless swarm of foreign enemies. Interestingly, given that the Literary Agent Hypothesis is in effect, they're technically the Indo-Europeans mentioned below in the Real Life section, or at least their ancestors. There are also Hordes from the North (Angmar, though that's Backstory, and West (Dunlendings, at least in relation to Rohan). Played with in the story of the Downfall of Númenor, where the Númenóreans, though they see themselves as the pinnacle of human civilization, gradually come to be seen as a faceless horde of opressors by other humans as their culture became more tyrannical (and particularly after Sauron became The Man Behind the Man to their king).
- A Song of Ice and Fire: the Dothraki. Luckily, the main focus civilisation is across the sea from them, and they're a determinedly non-seagoing people, but they're a constant worry for the city-states on the eastern continent.
- Nightrunner series: the invading Plenimar... of course from the east.
- Nineteen Eighty-Four: We've always been at war with Eastasia. We've always been at war with Eurasia. Either way, they're at war with the east, and the telescreens depict the enemy forces as an endless procession of "row after row of solid-looking men with expressionless Asiatic faces."
- The "Mabden" human barbarians in the Corum series are savage hordes from the East. The good, civilized Mabden live in a land that seems to have a closer resemblance to Europe, with lots of coastline, castles, and a cool-temperate climate. In the second trilogy, the hordes from the East are replaced by cold-dwelling Eldritch Abominations.
- The title character of Conrad Stargard prepares for, and wages, a defensive war against the Mongol invaders of Poland.
- Deconstructed with the Aiel from The Wheel of Time. As far as most of the Westland nations are concerned they're very much this trope, particularly in light of the fact that they fought a major war with them just a generation ago, but when they come into focus the Aiel are quickly established as a staunchly honorable people and allies of Rand (who is revealed to be of partial Aiel descent)- and as far as they're concerned, it's the Westlanders who are the incomprehensible barbarians.
- Played straight with the Angarak nations in The Belgariad. Subverted in the Sequel Series, The Malloreon, which shows that once Torak's influence is removed they're Not So Different from everyone else.
- A Woman In Berlin depicts hordes of dumb, rampaging Russian soldiers raping the women of Berlin during the occupation there at the end of WWII. Unfortunately, this was very much Based on a True Story. Some of the Russians are shone to be more civilized than others, though. One of them even protects the main character from the other Russians.
- Nazi propaganda used this trope extensively to try and raise morale in the later stages of the war, depicting Russians as a barbarian destructive invasion. This resulted in panicked refugees impacting German army logistics. The Captain Obvious solution of opening the Western front (to get Americans instead of Russians) was not tried; the Battle Of The Bulge probably ensured a Soviet Berlin.
- Also, British/American propaganda played this up in describing the Germans as such, particularly during World War One, where they were referred to as "Huns" and "Tartars" among other epithets.
- Hordes from the east did, in fact, attack Europe and the Middle East (and India and China, but it is "hordes from the north" in their case) with startling regularity for most of human history. They include Indo-Europeans, Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Avars, Magyars, Pechenegs, Kipchaks, Turks, Mongols, and Uzbeks. It wasn't until the rise of gunpowder armies that central Eurasian nomads ceased to be a major threat to their civilized neighbors.
- The Native Americans point of view on the European settlers...
- Heroes of Might and Magic V addon Tribes of the East introduces a faction, Great Horde, that bears much resemblance to huns/mongols.
- Tale Spin: The pandas of Panda-la seem like peaceful and isolationist Chinese stereotypes until they decide to unleash their airships and heat-seeking rockets to conquer the world. Due to rather obvious Unfortunate Implications, the episode was quietly banned from reruns.
- Parodied in South Park, where the owner of the City Wok restaurant is commissioned to build a wall around the city, only for portions of it to be repeatedly destroyed by a tribe of Mongols.