As with any epic, there's a lot that makes Lord of the Rings great. But perhaps what's most essential to the enduring power of both J.R.R. Tolkien's book series and Peter Jackson's sprawling film adaptations are the heroes whose struggles help ground us in the fantasy world of Middle Earth. While Sauron and his Orc minions aren't developed much beyond their propensity for death and destruction, we follow the series' heroes -- be they human, hobbit, elf, or dwarf -- through an entire era-defining war, witnessing their personal growth and the various ways they contribute to the larger cause.
Not all those contributions were equal, however. While all LOTR heroes have their moments to shine, there are some who prove themselves more powerful in winning the War of the Ring, though they're not often the ones you'd expect. The whole series goes to show that power can be defined in many ways -- not just in terms of physical strength, but in terms of perseverance and moral turpitude too -- so with that in mind, we're ranking Tolkien's chief heroes from weakest to most powerful, based on how their strengths come into play throughout all three films. Let's begin with the most worthless characters first and then work our way up through Middle Earth's mightiest heroes...
Played by David Wenham, Faramir has a tough lot in life, being constantly compared against his late brother Boromir by their mad father Denethor, the last steward of Gondor. And though Boromir is far from the series' most likable or heroic character, I can kinda see where Denethor's coming from on this one. There's plenty reason to pity Faramir, but the filmmakers never give us a whole lot to root for.
When he's first introduced in the Two Towers, in a departure from the books, he's nothing but an obstacle to Frodo and Sam, allowing the mistreatment of Gollum and seizing the opportunity to deliver his father the One Ring. Oh well, you might say, just about everyone was tempted by the Ring at one point, and Faramir was only trying to curry favor with a father that didn’t love him enough.
Understandable, yes, but Faramir never accomplishes much to make up for his deficiencies – in Return of the King, he’s still trying in vain to impress Denethor, leading an expedition to retake Osgiliath on his orders despite knowing it will be in vain. Then he spends the Battle of Minas Tirith unconscious, presumed dead, and wakes up in time to hook up with Eowyn before the film ends. Not exactly Middle Earth’s greatest hero.
Like many a female love interest throughout film history, Arwen (Liv Tyler) starts off strong but quickly runs out of things to do. Her most heroic moment comes in Fellowship, when she single-handedly rides from Rivendell to save Frodo from the Black Riders, even conjuring a flood to keep them at bay -- but not before uttering one of the series' most badass lines, "If you want him, come and claim him!" Good stuff.
After that, though, she switches firmly into love interest mode, her only scenes shared with either Aragorn or her father Elrond, who's pushing her to leave Middle Earth and abandon her hopes of a mortal life with Aragorn. All her scenes from here on out feel like departures from the main plot, though she does become indirectly useful once or twice, first by reviving Aragorn after his fall in The Two Towers, then by convincing her father to reforge the sword of Narsil.
Somehow, she becomes sick and her fate tied to that of the One Ring, so I guess Aragorn has some extra motivation to win the war? She’s kept so far from the action it’s hard to remember. She comes back at the end as Aragorn’s reward of sorts, which is fine. I just wish she got to put those flood powers to use more often.
Merry and Pippin (Billy Boyd) are a pair of screw-up hobbits who happily let themselves get roped into Frodo's unhappy quest of destroying the One Ring.
It becomes clear early on, however, that Pippin is by far the bigger screwup between him and Merry.
In just the first film, he reveals the hobbits' names and quest to strangers in Bree, nearly getting them taken out overnight, then later makes a clatter in the mines of Moria that leads the Fellowship to be discovered, eventually resulting in Gandalf's death in battle with the Balrog. He even gets on Aragorn’s nerve with all his talk of second breakfast and elevensies. Much of this can be written off as Pippin being the youngest of the hobbits, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s rather useless, even when compared against his fellow shirefolk.
He earns some good will in the second film by convincing Treebeard and the Ents to attack Isengard, but then spoils it all in the third by taking the mysterious stone of Sauron from Gandalf, putting himself and his allies in danger. Pippin never lacks in enthusiasm or willingness to atone for his mistakes, but he’s still pretty powerless when it comes down to it. At least he has a nice singing voice.
Maybe Boromir (Sean Bean) was a great guy before the events of LOTR start. Maybe he was the most beloved man in Middle Earth before arriving to the Council of Elrond to tell them of Gondor's struggles against Mordor -- we don't really know. As far as we see, Boromir serves as a cautionary tale for the One Ring's power to tempt and corrupt even the most powerful and well-intentioned of men.
Though he joins the Fellowship in its mission to destroy the Ring and proves useful in their journey, he soon goes back on their stated mission and tries convincing Frodo to use the Ring in Gondor's defense, foolishly underestimating the sway it would hold on him or his countrymen. Boromir may have power in battle, but he doesn’t have the willpower to resist the Ring’s call.
The best you can say for Boromir is that he at least realizes his mistake before it's too late. He weeps for having scared Frodo off, then works doubly hard to defend Merry and Pippin in an ensuing battle with the Uruk-hai. Having squandered the Fellowship’s last chance to stay together, he's eliminated from several arrows to the chest, but at least his final act is a noble one.
Yikes, that looks bad. But Theoden (Bernard Hill) isn't always like that -- he's just morally weakened and prematurely aged by the magic of Saruman and his stooge Grima Wormtongue when we first meet him. After Gandalf expels them, however, Theoden gets to looking a lot better, thought he's still shaken by his time under their spell and fearful of the coming war. His first action is a retreat to the stronghold of Helm’s Deep, not the most powerful move to make as a leader.
His uncertainties as a leader overshadowed by the glories of his forefathers give way to stronger leadership as the movies go on, especially in Return of the King, when he proves himself as an ally, leader, and warrior in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, before being taken out by the Witch King and saying his tearful goodbye to Eowyn. Earlier, he even gets that rousing moment following the lighting of the beacons: "Gondor calls for aid." "And Rohan will answer!"
That's an archetypal moment for Theoden. For all his misgiving and faults, he comes through in the end, and he's one of the film series' most human characters for that. He's just not that powerful.
Elrond (Hugo Weaving) doesn't really do much throughout the War of the Ring, but that makes sense -- he's been disappointed by this kind of thing before, being a witness to Isildur's earlier failure to destroy the ring.
As Lord of Rivendell, his duty is to his people and to his daughter, who's helplessly drawn to the heir of the guy who failed him all those years ago, so it's understandable why Elrond would encourage her to forget about him and sit most of the fighting out in his hometown this time around.
At least he does everyone the solid of convening that Council, which establishes the Fellowship and sets them on their path to victory.
And Elrond does come around. In Return of the King, he gives Aragorn the reforged sword that allows him to reclaim his birth right as king of Gondor and call in a favor from the Army of the Dead, who prove essential to winning the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. All in all, Elrond's a respectable and resolute neutral power whose reservations about the cause of men make sense given his history, yet who still provides essential aid to other heroes and proves himself willing to learn--as a leader and a prospective father-in-law.
I bet he kicked some serious ass back in the day too -- Legolas-style.
Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) has got it going on, magic-wise. The royal elf has been around long enough to know the whole history behind the War of the Ring -- hence why she narrates Fellowship's opening passages -- and she seems to hypnotize any mortal who come in contact with her through sheer radiance. Her other mystical powers include telepathy and predictive gift-giving, as she sends off almost every member of the Fellowship with some trinket that will prove essential to their respective journeys -- like the rope for Sam or Eärendil's Light to Frodo.
So why is she ranked so low in this list? Because like Boromir before her and Faramir after her, she wasn't powerful enough to resist the Ring. Sure, she calms herself down and lets Frodo walk away unscathed after offering it to her, but that's only after full-on flipping out, ranting and raving and temporarily transforming into some weird, electric-blue demon.
She doesn’t really do much after this bizarre episode in Fellowship besides her present handout. Plus, she was already in possession of another ring of power, which I bet has something to do with that hypnotic radiance.
Forget Pippin. Pippin is dead weight. On his own merits, Merry is more competent than he usually gets credit for, and a damn devoted companion to boot -- an undervalued power most pronounced in hobbits. Carried over from the books, he quietly emerges as the most intelligent and perceptive of the hobbits, putting his geographic knowledge to good use and often grasping the reality of their situation sooner than any of the others.
After his capture in Two Towers, he's insistent on helping his friends however possible, pressing Treebeard to do something with admirable stubbornness before Pippin makes the final push.
Then, when his friend is carted away from him in Return, Merry overcomes the snide skepticism of Rohan's soldiers to fight in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields alongside his fellow underdog Eowyn. Note that Merry didn’t really have to be involved in any of this – he chose to be to help his friends. Again, that’s the sort of power Lord of the Rings is about, and I can’t think of a better example than at the final standoff at the Black Gate, when Merry and Pippin are the first to run screaming into battle after Aragorn.
It's true Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) can't hold his liquor. It's also true that the latter two films of the series mostly relegate him to the role of comic relief, belching at the end of important discussions and making silly excuses for his diminutive size or lack of endurance. But LOTR's only dwarf character is still a fearless and powerful ally, and great with an axe, as he'd have to be to fight alongside Aragorn and Legolas through so many battles and still survive.
Remember when he's fighting back a flood of orcs on the bridge at Helm's Deep, after being thrown by Aragorn? Good stuff. And that brings me to another point about Gimli: he's not afraid to swallow his pride. That much is made clear by how he overcomes his prejudice against elves ("Never trust an elf!") to become besties with Legolas by the series' end. As with Elrond and many other characters, that propensity to change is a power in itself.
Plus, he's apparently dispensing of enough foes to keep up with Legolas in their cute little contest -- considering the stunts we see Legolas pull, that's a pretty impressive feat.
Like Merry, Eowyn (Miranda Otto) is a seemingly minor character who's consistently undervalued and who takes it upon herself to get involved in this fight for Middle Earth. She's not content to be an empty-headed Rohan royal, but yearns to fight back against Saruman's gathering armies, even while her ruling uncle Theoden is still under the sway of Grima Wormtongue, whose words are poison.
She resists his vile advances until Gandalf arrives, then helps nurse Theoden back to health and realize his full potential as a leader. She falls hard for Aragorn, who doesn't return her feelings (either because her cooking stinks or because of Arwen, it's not really clear) and warns her against going to war.
Again, Eowyn isn't content with role men have assigned her, so she defies them and goes to fight disguised as a common foot-soldier -- and boy is it a good thing she does. Eowyn's shining moment as a hero comes when she vanquishes the Witch King, exploiting a pretty obvious loophole in his invincibility with that "I am no man!" line. Since Sauron never actually materializes, Eowyn deserves recognition as the one directly responsible for killing the series’ next biggest villain. Plus, somehow she gets over Viggo Mortensen and settles for David Wenham. That takes power.
Truth be told, Legolas isn't all that interesting as a character. Played by Orlando Bloom, he's just another steely-eyed, vaguely smug elf who happens to be really good with a bow. You gotta give him this, however -- he honors his commitments, and never once considers deserting his buddies from the Fellowship after setting out, even if the films never make clear his motivations in doing so.
Anyway, it hardly matters when you're as unbelievably gifted in battle as Legolas, who has no trouble shooting bulls-eyes with his arrows every time, even when skateboarding down a staircase at Helm's Deep or parkouring around an Oliphaunt at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Those are total movie moments, but they make Legolas look like a total boss, despite being something of an empty vessel the rest of the time.
Beyond his battle prowess, the other best thing about Legolas is his friendship with Gimli, though a lot of it develops off-screen. Legolas's most powerful moment as a friend comes in the Two Towers, when he raises his bow at Eomer’s threat to Gimli and says, “"You would die before your stroke fell."
Some seek power, others have power thrust upon them. Frodo Baggins could have had an unexceptional life like most hobbits, but instead, the reluctant hero gets sucked into bearing Middle Earth's most unbearable burden thanks to his uncle Bilbo's carelessness. Like the other hobbits, Frodo doesn't really want anything to do with the Ring or its power, which, oddly enough, proves to be his greatest strength.
Elijah Wood plays him as wide-eyed and sometimes even hapless in his naivete, though he takes his task as ring-bearer seriously even when he doesn't quite yet understand it. The Ring's power weighs heavily on him throughout the series, so it's true he doesn't accomplish much aside from trekking to Mordor.
But because of how that grueling journey and the toll the Ring takes on Frodo are presented, the audience understands how heavily the burden weighs on him, and the moral turpitude required to try and destroy it. Though Frodo falters in the end and tries to keep the Ring for his own, he got the Ring that far, which is further than anyone else could have done -- even Gandalf knew that.
No one but Frodo could have carried the Ring, but Frodo never would have gotten far without Sam (Sean Astin). At the beginning of the story, Sam is nothing more than Frodo's sadsack friend and gardener, but his unsurpassed emotional strength fast becomes essential in their long and arduous journey to Mount Doom.
He's pretty much the embodiment of loyalty, the kind of guy who'd run into the water after his best friend even when he can't swim.
In Two Towers and Return of the King, he gives stirring speeches about the need for love and hope to get through tough times, which actually end up giving Frodo enough love and hope to get through the tough times. His biggest failing might be his mistreatment of Gollum/Smeagol, though that might be warranted depending on who you ask. Furthermore, Sam fights off a giant spider for Frodo's sake, then physically carries him through the final stretch after he collapses from exhaustion. And if all that weren't enough to prove his unique power, Sam is also the only one seen to willingly relinquish the ring once it's in his possession. That alone makes Sam among Lord of the Rings’ most powerful heroes.
It's no secret Gandalf the Grey made some big mistakes at the outset of the War of the Ring -- he does get taken out, after all -- but by the end, he's emerged with a fresh new look as the driving force behind the free peoples of Middle Earth's efforts to fend off Sauron. In Fellowship, he's kind of like the hobbits' wise-ass uncle, competent and intelligent, but who you can tell isn't really reaching his full potential.
Nonetheless, he has enough wizardly know-how to mount an effort to defeat Sauron and destroy the Ring, though his plans are waylaid by the traitorous Saruman, the ferocious Balrog, and the screw-up Peregrin Took. But after going down, Gandalf buckles down and starts to take things seriously, returning as Gandalf the White in Two Towers and taking no nonsense from anyone, including Saruman and Grima Wormtongue.
In two consecutive battles, he's indispensable in assembling allies to fight for the cause of good, first by leading the elves to Helm's Deep, then by ordering the lighting of the beacons at Minas Tirith, where his leadership skills far surpass those of Denethor. For all his mistakes early on, Gandalf makes up for it by being the only character big enough to fully recognize the hobbits' worth, and in general, to see how all the good guys could and should come together to vanquish evil.
What can you say about Aragorn? He's the King and he deserves it, as he shows himself throughout the films to be the very epitome of mankind's worth. In fact, like Legolas, he's almost a little too flawless to come across as a real character -- he's even semi-immortal, as a member of the Dúnedain. He's mysterious at first, protecting and shepherding the hobbits as a ranger dubbed Strider, before being revealed by Legolas as the reluctant heir to Gondor -- the chance for his family's redemption as just rulers over the realms of men.
Aragorn grows into his leadership role, first resuming command of the Fellowship following Gandalf's untimely death and then pushing Theoden to fight for his people and later his race. He's essential in battle after battle, not just as a fighter like Legolas and Gimli but as a leader too, emerging as the best chance for the survival of goodness against Sauron's armies.
So by the time he's leading the charge on the Black Gate to cover for Sam and Frodo's final push on Mount Doom, it's hard not to root for Aragorn as the deserving monarch of all mankind after all he's done. Then, to top it all off, he shows he’s not too proud or blind to see the heroes beside himself, having all of Gondor bow for the hobbits at his coronation ceremony.
Who do you think was most valuable in the story? Let us know in the comments!