J.R.R Tolkien was responsible for crafting one of the most epic and intricate universes in all of literature. While the wider world might be more familiar with Peter Jackson's film adaptations, the War of the Rings saga that spans The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy is really just the tip of the iceberg. For context, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins— the comfort-loving Hobbits who get sucked into the vortex of power rings, dragons and wizards— are around in what Tolkien defines as the Third Age. That means centuries' worth of history has already taken place by the time most of us become first acquainted with Arda and its peoples. (Arda, for the non-book folk, is what the author calls his fictional version of Earth, encompassing both Middle-earth and Valinor, the mysterious Eastern realm that the Elves depart to at the end of Return of the King.)
The beasts and monsters we encounter during the Third Age are pretty fantastical, but if you journey back to the Second and First Ages you'll find even bigger, badder and stronger creatures capable of ransacking cities and terrorizing entire armies. Middle-earth is populated by a lot of the same animals you'd find in our world, but Tolkien borrowed a lot of classic critters from folklore like dragons and werewolves and even invented a lot of his own. The definition of "creature" can be pretty broad, so for this list, we're throwing in everything save for the most human races in Arda: Men, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits. And, as some creatures are exceptionally powerful for their species, we'll be including a mixture of collective and individual entries.
Gandalf refers to Shadowfax in The Two Towers as the "Lord of all horses," and that's not just the wizard waxing lyrical about his favorite steed. Shadowfax is a direct descendant of Felaróf, the greatest horse to ever step hoof in Middle-earth. Both are members of the Mearas, a type of horse far superior than the average.
Shadowfax is incredibly brave, loyal and smart, sticking by Gandalf even when charging into one of the greatest of battles and capable of understanding his every command. His finest attribute, however, is his speed. He's described as being "faster than the wind," which was proven when he carried Gandalf between The Shire and Rohan in under a week.
In Tolkien's mythology, wargs can be marked out from a normal wolf by their size and relative intelligence. They're capable of allying themselves to another species— usually Goblins— and can be ridden like horses. Wargs are also capable of carrying out purposeful attacks on their own, rather than just hunting for food.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, they did just this to the Fellowship outside of Moria after becoming agents of Mordor. We also saw wargs used by Azog and his Orc troops towards the climax of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, nearly sending Gandalf and the rest of the company tumbling over a cliff as they took refuge up a tree, and almost knocking the life right out of Thorin.
Though Tolkien had a confusing habit of using "Orc" and "goblin" interchangeably, fans view them as two related but separate species, and Jackson depicted them as such in his films. While similar in shape and monstrosity, goblins tend to be smaller, sharper and more technologically savvy than their stronger orcish cousins.
In fact, in Over Hill and Under Hill, Tolkien wrote that "it is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world [...] for wheels and engines and explosives always delighted them." In terms of physical might, the Great Goblin who traps Thorin and company in The Hobbit in his Goblin-town stronghold is probably the peak of the species.
The Uruk-hai are a superior Orc species bred specifically for war. In The Lord of the Rings, Saruman cooks up an army of them in Isengard and sends them after the Fellowship. Two of them play key roles in the story: Ugluk, who captures Merry and Pippin, and— in Jackson's films— Lurtz, who cuts down Boromir.
As a hybrid of Man and Orc, they have the combat and strategic skills of the former and the raw strength of the latter. One particularly barbaric tradition left-over from their orcish half is to fill their helmets with the blood of their enemies before battle. The smell of it running down their bodies makes them wildly thirsty for more.
As ogres are only mentioned in passing during Bilbo and Gollum's riddle game in The Hobbit, they might be creatures of mere myth in Tolkien's Middle-earth. But, they made a very real appearance in Peter Jackson's The Battle of Five Armies as highly-effective foot soldiers and leaders in Azog's army.
Ogres can be differentiated from trolls— of which they could be easily mistaken for— by their smaller stature and lack of weakness to sunlight. In The Lord of the Rings films, we see Orcs using trolls as battering rams and transport, whereas Azog entrusts his ogre allies with important missions, which they carry out to deadly effect.
Trolls are much larger and older than their ogre brethren— the biggest reaching up to 50ft. They're also artificial beings, created by Melkor (Sauron's master) for his War of the Wrath during the First Age. Their weakness to the sun's rays, which turns them into stone, is echoed in their rock-like hides, shielding them from physical harm.
The cockney-voiced trio that nearly devours Bilbo and the dwarves in The Hobbit might give you the impression that trolls aren't up to much, but the ones that survived into the Third Age and joined forces with Sauron were considered massive threats. What they lack in brain power, they make up for in sheer size and muscle.
How do you build a better troll? Easy. Get rid of their one weakness. That's basically what an Olog-hai is, an improvement on the original mentioned in The Return of the King. Trolls are already frightening forces to face down on the battlefield if you're a smaller, squishier creature, but at least their older enemies knew they were only active at night.
Olog-hai are also a little brighter than other trolls— though that's not really saying much. Like Uruk-hai, they were purpose-bred to fight in Sauron's armies during the Third Age. Some have mouths full of sharpened teeth while others have large tusks. They range from 15-30ft and, unlike most trolls, wear full battle armor and can skillfully wield weapons.
Carcharoth is a werewolf who lived in the First Age and is a direct descendant of Draugluin, the first of their breed. Draugluin was created by Morgoth— the name that the first Dark Lord Melkor came to be known by— by infusing a wolf with an evil spirit. Morgoth raised Carcharoth on a diet of magically-enhanced "living flesh."
This resulted in the beast growing to an enormous size with a hunger to match. His eyes were said to glow like "coals," his fur was striped scarlet and his teeth were tipped with poison, earning him names like Red Maw and the Jaws of Thirst. True to that last title, he famously bit the hand and wrist clean off Beren Erchamion (Aragorn's distant ancestor.)
Indistinguishable from trees when sleeping, Ents are sentient tree-like creatures tasked with tending and protecting forests. They each tend to closely resemble the type of tree that they're in charge of. Treebeard, the Ent who Merry and Pippin encounter in Fangorn Forest, is the oldest surviving member of their kind.
Though they're famously slow-moving (and speaking) Ents are incredibly strong and resilient, as Merry and Pippin tell us: "Their punches can crumple iron like tinfoil, and they can tear apart solid rock like bread crusts." The two hobbits help galvanize Treebeard's herd to destroy Saruman's Isengard stronghold to avenge his assault on their forest, leading to the wizard's demise.
Sometimes, size really is everything. Mûmakils are Tolkien's spin on elephants. They were exclusively used by the Haradrim, a race of Men who lived in the Southern region of Middle-earth and became indoctrinated by Sauron to serve as his human allies in the War of the Ring. During the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, 18,000 of them faced down King Theoden's forces.
At up to 90ft tall, the Mûmakil they brought with them struck devastating blows on the battlefield, acting like the animal equivalent to tanks. With their naturally armored skin, they're very hard to even scratch, while anything smaller than them caught in their path will either get squashed or swiped away by a trunk or one of their four, long tusks.
Like ogres, Were-worms' actual existence in Tolkien's writing was questionable. Hobbits believed they lived in deserts to the far East of the Shire, but they could have mixed them up with dragons— who resembled long, wingless lizards to begin with. Peter Jackson decided to include them in The Battle of Five Armies.
Azog the Defiler used them to create an underground passage for part of his army between Mount Gundabad and Erebor. Here, Jackson envisioned them to be about 400ft long and 75ft wide with huge, earth-crushing mouths. Luckily for the horrified Dwarves, Elves and Men at Erebor's gate, they weren't keen on leaving their tunnels.
13 AZOG THE DEFILER
While he's not an Uruk-hai, Azog the Defiler was probably the greatest Orc to ever set foot in Middle-earth. Great, but certainly not "good." He got his title by beheading the Dwarven King Thrór, Thorin's grandfather, beginning a bitter war between the two species. Thorin avenged his family by taking one of the Orc's arms.
In Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy, Azog's missing appendage has been replaced by a metal spike, making his already scarred and muscular body even more intimidating. Azog isn't just strong though -- he's also cunning: preferring to corner and wear down his enemy so that he can strike at exactly the right moment. No wonder Sauron took a shine to him.
For a lot of people, there's nothing scarier than spiders— no matter the size. That's why Shelob left such a lasting impression on fans of The Lord of the Rings as one of the film trilogy's creepiest creatures. Knowing how powerful she is, Gollum leads Sam and Frodo right into her lair in Mordor, having previously had his life spared by Shelob on the promise of satiating her with juicier meat.
Despite her size, we see her stalk the unfortunate Frodo in total silence before paralyzing the Hobbit with her stinger and wrapping him up in webbing for later. Though she was considered a pet by Sauron, she's neutral to any side but her own unending hunger and feared by every creature that knew what she was capable of.
With their ear-splitting shrieks, you’re more likely to hear a Fellbeast long before you see one. These black, winged monsters are the chosen flying steed of the Nazgȗl, or Ring Wraiths— Sauron’s formerly mortal servants who were corrupted by the Rings of Power and transformed into malevolent, ghostly entities.
Fellbeasts are incredibly agile and powerful hunters. They like to swoop down and bite their prey if they’re targeting a group or, for individuals, grab and lift them up into the air so that they can drop them to their doom. The only thing they seem to fear is direct sunlight, as demonstrated when Gandalf warded them off in The Return of the King.
10 GREAT EAGLES
Otherwise known as the deus ex machina of The Lord of the Rings, the Great Eagles are the side of good’s best defense against the likes of flying terrors like Fellbeasts and dragons. Though they may not look as ferocious, Tolkien stated they were definitely the fastest. Their king, Thorondor, was the biggest with a wingspan of 180 feet.
He did battle with the largest dragon ever to exist in Middle-earth, while his son, Gwaihir, played an instrumental role in the War of the Ring. Gwaihir is the leader of the eagles that rescue Gandalf after his tussles with Saruman and the Balrog, as well as Frodo and Sam after they bring the one ring to Mount Doom.
Despite their gigantic size— over 100 feet tall— giants are rarely seen in Middle-earth. In fact, Tolkien’s mention of them in the Red Book of Westmarch was his only, suggesting he simply dropped the idea of including them altogether. In An Unexpected Journey, Frodo, Gandalf and the dwarves pass through what they think is a thunderstorm in the mountains.
Looking up, they realize the cacophony of sound is actually a pair of giants tossing rocks at each other for fun. In Jackson’s version, these giants look like they could easily be mistaken for actual mountains because of their towering stature and rocky forms. It’s just as well they seem to care little for the affairs of the smaller people who live below them.
8 WATCHER IN THE WATER
The watcher might be Tolkien’s most mysterious monster. So mysterious that it doesn’t even have a proper creature name. Clearly, it’s inspiration was the Kraken, as it's described as having 21 tentacles in The Fellowship of the Ring, which emerge from the lake in front of the gate to the Mines of Moria.
After it snatches up Frodo, all that the rest of the Fellowship can do is force it to the release the ring-bearer, before rushing inside the magically sealed gate to hide from it. The only information we get about its origin is when Gandalf describes it as being "older" and "fouler" than Orcs. Given its proximity, it could be another ancient evil disturbed by the dwarves in Moria.
7 DURIN’S BANE
In The Lord of the Rings, the Fellowship find themselves surrounded by a goblin horde deep in the Mines of Moria, but just as they ready themselves to fight for their lives, a much bigger and older threat erupts from the deep. Named Durin’s Bane because of its slaying of the great Dwarven king, this Balrog is one of the last of its kind by the Third Age.
It may surprise Tolkien newbies to learn that Balrogs and wizards share common ancestry. Both are angelic entities called Maiar, but Balrogs were corrupted by Melkor to become the demonic, fiery beasts like the one that Gandalf spends days battling; an intense encounter that results in the destruction of both of their physical forms.
Gothmog, whose name means "strife and hate" was Lord of all Balrogs in the First Age. His official status in Morgoth’s army as the High Captain of Angbard meant he was also on equal footing with Sauron, Morgoth’s successor. Like Durin’s Bane, Gothmog gained a reputation as a king-slayer, claiming the lives of two High Kings of the Ñoldor Elves.
As well as a whip, he wielded a huge, black axe, and if that wasn’t intimidating enough, during the Beleriand wars he also had a personal protection detail of trolls as an extra layer of defense. Gothmog and the other Balrogs eventually broke free from servitude to claim Angbard as their own where he remained the greatest of his kind to ever walk Middle-earth.
As far as dragons in Tolkien’s work goes, Smaug has by far the most name recognition, and by the Third Age, he was the last of the "great" ones left. Dragons worship wealth so, naturally, his focus was pulled to the Dwarven King Thror’s huge pile of treasure within the Lonely Mountain, which Smaug claimed for himself.
It’s clear in The Hobbit that Gandalf is concerned about what a tremendous ally Smaug would make to Sauron, and he’s right. Though not the largest of his kind, Smaug is still one of the largest, fastest and smartest beasts in Middle-earth -- not to mention one of the most devious. Had there not already been a chink in his armor, he might have been impossible to take down.
4 SCATHA THE WORM
Dragons in Middle-earth can be split into winged and wingless, of which the latter are classed as Long-worms. Scatha was the second-greatest Long-worm in ever live in Middle-earth. By the Third Age, he made his nest in the Grey Mountains where, like Smaug, he was was greedy for gold, and hoarded masses of it from Men and Dwarves.
Like Smaug again, his ill-gotten gains eventually became his downfall, with Fram the leader of the Éothéod (Northmen) slaying him to reclaim what was stolen from his people, triggering a conflict with the Dwarves in the process. Scatha could have lived for hundreds of years before that, and as a Long-worm, could breathe mist and flames.
3 ANCALAGON THE BLACK
Ancalagon the Black was one of the Morgoth's best weapons in the First Age. He was the first winged dragon, and the largest, to ever exist. In the War of Wrath, he led an army of other Fire Drakes into battle against the Valor— Morgoth’s own kind whom he betrayed— bringing with them "a tempest of fire and lightning."
The only clue we have as to exactly how huge he was comes when he was finally brought down by Eärendil and the Great Eagles in that battle; his body apparently flattening a mountain range. Gandalf also hinted that his fire was the hottest when he tells Frodo that not even Ancalagon’s flames could destroy the One Ring.
2 GLAURUNG THE GREAT WORM
The only dragon capable of beating Ancalagon the Black is the daddy of them all. Glaurung the Great Worm was Morgoth’s first attempt to create a more effective soldier than an Orc. It took 1,000 years of cooking in the depths of Angbard before Glaurung was born, after which he got straight to working razing city after city to the ground.
His thirst for destruction was something his master couldn’t control easily, resorting to imprisoning him in Angbard when he didn’t have a mission for him. Perhaps Glaurung’s most frightening ability was his spell-casting. With his serpentine eyes he could control minds and bodies, even erase memories. He would go on to rule his descendants for hundreds of years as the "dragon-king."
1 THE UNGOLIANT
The only thing more powerful than the father of all dragons is the mother of all spiders. The Ungoliant— mother to Shelob— was a mysterious entity theorized by the oldest in Arda to be made of pure darkness. Though she was allied to Melkor for some time, her true motivation was just to feed. Her favorite food? Light itself.
This was how Melkor won her allegiance, encouraging her to feast on the Two Trees of Valinor— Arda’s primordial sources of light. Doing this grew the Ungoliant to an ungodly size. On Middle-earth, she ended her partnership with Morgoth (formerly Melkor) by attacking him and his screams forever scarred the land. The Ungoliant’s hunger was so insatiable, her last victim was... herself.