Even years after its release, no high fantasy has come close to dethroning Peter Jackson’s epic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as the genre’s definitive cinematic outing. To this day, the trilogy remains influential on popular culture and its significance isn’t likely to wane any time soon.
Some of the series’ most iconic moments don’t come from the massive battles or the characters’ interactions, but in the deaths of our favorite characters. Over the course of three movies, characters inside and outside the Fellowship of the Ring either fell in combat or tragically died the way they lived. Here are the 10 most heartbreaking deaths in The Lord of the Rings, ranked according to their narrative and emotional impact.
10 Denethor – The Return of the King
With Faramir dead, Denethor decides to end his bloodline once and for all by burning himself in a funeral pyre for his second son. Thing is, Faramir is alive. Nearly cremating his son causes the already unhinged Denethor to throw himself off of Minas Tirith’s highest point.
Though his death is more cathartic than tragic, the end of Denethor’s stewardship over Gondor was only brought about by severe grief and regret instead of malice. It’s hard not to feel bad for the king, even if he was kind of pathetic when compared to everyone else in the cast.
9 Sauruman – The Return of the King (Extended)
Following his defeat at the hands of the Ents, the corrupted wizard Saurman the White meets his end when he’s backstabbed by Grima Wormtongue before being impaled on one of his Uruk Khai-creating machinations.
What makes the wizard’s death more heartbreaking outside of the poetic justice is the fact that it can only be seen in the third movie’s extended edition. To meet the required running time, one of Christopher Lee’s last onscreen appearances was cut out from The Return of the King’s theatrical run. He reprised the role in The Hobbit trilogy before passing in 2015.
8 The Army of the Dead – The Return of the King
For abandoning their promise to provide aid to Isildur's forces during the War of the Last Alliance, the Oathbreakers were cursed to never die until they uphold the pact. They redeem themselves in the Battle of Pelenor Fields, where Aragorn holds their oaths fulfilled.
Some have joked that Aragorn should’ve kept the undead soldiers around for the final battle in Mordor, but they’ve been stuck in limbo too long – doing so would just be rude. After eons of regret , the Army of the Dead regained its honor and finally received the eternal rest they’ve yearned for.
7 Haldir And His Men – The Two Towers
After eons of self-imposed exile from Middle Earth, the Elves come to the humans' aid during the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Led by Haldir, the Elves bolster Rohan’s forces against the coming onslaught.
It should be noted that the Elves, particularly Elrond, lost faith in men when King Isildur kept the Ring of Power instead of destroying it. Their deaths in Helm’s Deep may make their efforts seem futile, but this was the first time in ages that the Elves helped mankind – a bond they were willing to rekindle even if it meant their demise.
6 Faramir’s Company – The Return of the King
For an unspecified amount of time, Faramir and his men have been keeping Mordor’s forces at bay in the ruins of Osgiliath. They’re finally overwhelmed when Sauron launches a full-scale invasion on Gondor, starting with the fallen city.
Adding insult to injury, Faramir’s already decimated forces are ordered by Denethor to launch a suicidal cavalry charge in a vain attempt to retake the city. The attack ends predictably and the soldiers’ heads are catapulted into Gondor’s walls, thus giving some of the most honorable soldiers in the entire trilogy a humiliating end.
5 King Theoden – The Return of the King
The brave warrior king Theoden of Rohan continued to make up for lost time by rallying all of the horsemen he could find to answer Gondor’s call for aid, and he died on the battlefields for doing so.
Once downed by the Witch King, Theoden is saved from the Nazgul’s blade by his daughter Eowyn, who for the longest time he underestimated by virtue of her being a woman. In his last moments, he asks his daughter for her forgiveness and acknowledges her for being a brave soldier of Rohan.
4 Aragorn's Prophesied Death – The Two Towers
In his attempt to save his daughter Arwen from grief, Elrond warns her that Aragorn – a regular human being – would die of old age. This would drive Arwen into a deep sadness from which she’ll never recover, leading to her own death.
Though it’s only shown in a premonition, Aragorn’s death is all but inevitable – even more so after he rejected a chance to join the Elves’ exile to the Grey Heavens, where immortality awaits them. Aragorn went down in Middle Earth’s history as one of mankind’s bravest champions, living and dying as an ordinary man despite his title.
3 Gandalf the Grey –The Fellowship of the Ring
One of the most iconic moments in The Lord of the Rings is also one of the most tragic, since it’s where the beloved wizard Gandalf the Grey dies in his battle with the fiery Balrog.
Gandalf’s death in the Mines of Moria marked a significant shift for the Fellowship, since their optimistic sense of adventure was dashed the moment the Balrog dragged the wizard into the abyss. His eventual resurrection as Gandalf the White does little to diminish the impact of his death, which is also a point of no return for the trilogy.
2 Boromir – The Fellowship of the Ring
Gondor’s chosen son, Boromir, is the first of the Fellowship to fall to the powers of the One Ring and nearly kills Frodo because of it. He immediately regretted this upon regaining his senses, and died to atone for his mistakes.
To give Frodo a chance to escape, Boromir holds off as many Uruk Khai as he can. The lone warrior is soon overwhelmed by the Orcs’ numbers, but not before he fulfills his mission. What makes Boromir’s sacrifice heartbreaking is how it hammered in the growing severity of the situation and marked the end of the Fellowship.
1 Smeagol/Gollum – The Return of the King
Smeagol’s descent into Gollum is the clearest depiction of Sauron’s darkness, which corrupts an innocent Hobbit into a feral creature that barely remembers its name. Obsessed with his "precious," Gollum finally gets it back but at the cost of melting along with it.
What makes Gollum’s death truly heartbreaking are the flashes of innocence we see in his Smeagol form. Unlike Boromir, Smeagol loses to the Ring’s influence after managing to temporarily stave it off. Whatever bits of Smeagol were left vanished when he tricked Frodo into Shelob’s lair, and he would finally die as the irredeemable Gollum in the fires of Mount Doom.