J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy world of Middle-earth is absolutely overflowing with powerful creatures. After all, The Lord of the Rings trilogy features wizards, ents, trolls, Nazgûl, a balrog, and the list goes on and on. Mighty characters like Gandalf, Galadriel, and Sauron have all taken turns in the spotlight as they fight over the fate of the world itself.
But with so many superpowered characters facing off, we have to ask … who’s got the magical edge? Does a wizard like Saruman have an advantage over an elf-lord like Elrond? What about a man like Aragorn against a ringwraith like the Witch King of Angmar?
Well, we’ve decided to answer the question head-on by ranking the most powerful characters in Middle-earth from weakest to strongest. Each rank will factor in everything from weapons and spiritual potency (a big factor for Tolkien) to political power and straight-up combat skills. Let the battle for Middle-earth commence.
Who’s in the running?
Before we get started, let’s set some ground rules. In order to keep things from getting too complicated, we’re going to stick to characters within The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We’ll generally approach things from Peter Jackson’s films, although we’ll definitely include the books, as well.
In other words, we won’t be bringing in The Hobbit or The Silmarillion characters like Smaug, Iluvatar, or Morgoth. After all, the Valar alone — the "gods" or "angelic beings" that oversee the affairs of Middle-earth — would dominate the entire list, leaving all the better-known cinematic characters off in the weeds.
Finally, we’ll only be considering people that play a significant role within the story itself. So characters like Elendil, Gil-galad, and Círdan who show up for a shot or two in Jackson’s films won’t be included. We also won’t dabble with characters like Tom Bombadil or Glorfindel who, while incredibly powerful, were never acknowledged in the cinematic cut (and yes, we’re mad about that, too).
Apart from that, it’s open season. So, let’s see who made the list, shall we?
The Mouth of Sauron is one mean monster
The Mouth of Sauron shows up in the extended edition of The Return of the King, as the armies of the West arrive at the Black Gate and prepare to fight the Dark Lord’s remaining forces. The toothy devil plays the part of an emissary from the Dark Tower, sadistically discussing terms with the warriors he assumes are doomed beyond all hope.
The Mouth of Sauron plays a relatively short role in the films and quickly gets his head chopped off by Aragorn. So it’s hard to see how he would end up on a list of the most powerful. But the books give us a bit more information.
According to Tolkien, the villain started out as a renegade before applying for work at the Dark Tower. From there, he rose through the ranks thanks to his cunning and unusual appetite for cruelty. After catching Sauron’s eye, he become a powerful scorcerer and lieutenant of the Tower of Barad-dûr itself. While he may end up decapitated, he was absolutely a force to be reckoned during his day.
The King of the Dead may be cursed, but he’s still a king
Kings are usually pretty powerful, regardless of the situation. But how many kings die and then still get to lead an army of spirits that follow them around and attack anything they order them to? It may be creepy, but it’s a powerful ability, nonetheless. Hence, the King of the Dead naturally makes the list.
The green ghoul commands a shadow host that’s been cursed for quite a while, giving him a bit of a Captain Barbossa vibe. The only thing is, in this case, the ghostly soldiers don’t need to gather up some stolen gold in order to end the spell. Instead, they need to fulfill their oath to fight for Aragorn, as he’s the descendant of the Númenórean king who cursed them in the first place. And once they do, the undead army can finally find rest.
The King of the Dead would probably land a bit higher on the list if it weren’t for the fact that, for all of his power, he still needs to obey Aragorn. Plus, it’s important to note that he started out as a bit of a coward in the first place, as he and his people were originally cursed for not joining in the fight against Sauron.
Gwaihir the Wind Lord is one impressive eagle
Eagles hold a special place in Tolkien’s mythology, so the Lord of the Eagles is naturally a pretty powerful creature. Gwaihir is considered both the greatest and the fastest eagle in Middle-earth during the time of The Lord of the Rings. He also has some killer eagle sight that allows him to "look at the sun unblinking and … see a rabbit moving on the ground a mile below even in the moonlight."
Initially, he’s recruited by Radagast to bring Gandalf messages at Isengard. However, he quickly takes on a larger role when he rescues the Grey Wizard from his imprisonment on Orthanc, literally carrying the fellow away to the safety of Rohan. After that, the Lord of the Eagles shows up again, this time sent by Galadriel, in order to shuttle Gandalf to Lothlorien after he defeats the Balrog. And then, as his pièce de résistance, the king of the skies saves Frodo and Sam from certain death on the slopes of Mount Doom after the ring is destroyed. When you add it all up, the feathered captain is a powerful character that impacts the story more than once.
Shelob is an eight-legged nightmare
One of the creepiest creatures in Middle-earth, Shelob the Great is an ancient arachnid and a direct descendant of Ungoliant, one of the most horrifying demons that Tolkien ever thought up. While Shelob doesn’t bother people outside of her lair, any elf, man, hobbit, or goblin who wanders onto her turf is toast.
She comes across as physiologically focused, primarily desiring to eat and be left alone. In The Two Towers, Tolkien describes her as a selfish creature that had grown bloated and fat over the centuries from drinking "the blood of elves and men." However, she does appear to also have a latent spiritual power, probably inherited from her cruel mother. Take her interaction with Gollum as an example. The book explains that "the darkness of her evil will walked through all the ways of his weariness beside him, cutting him off from light and from regret." Any way you slice it, Shelob is hands-down the scariest spider in both literary and cinematic history.
The Witch-king of Angmar is the most powerful wraith in The Lord of the Rings
Now we’re starting to run into characters that have rings of power, which is where things get really interesting. First up, we have the Witch-king of Angmar. The most powerful of the nine "mortal men, doomed to die," the Witch-king is one of Sauron’s most faithful and powerful servants. In fact, he was serving the big bad guy for centuries, long before The Lord of the Rings even takes place. Gandalf refers to this indomitable foe in The Return of the King book as a "Sorcerer, Ringwraith, Lord of the Nazgûl, a spear of terror in the hand of Sauron."
Along with being a wraith that wields a ring of power, the Lord of the Nazgûl serves as Sauron’s chief captain, which means he has a ton of literal, physical muscle to back up his own horrifying strength. He’s also bolstered by an ancient prophecy that no mortal man can kill him (hence, Eowyn’s "I am no man" line). From hunting terrified hobbits through the Shire to leading the attack on Minas Tirith, the Witch-king of Angmar is about as bad as they get.
Samwise Gamgee is a super strong hobbit
If you’re scratching your head because a hobbit gardener made it this far up the list, you shouldn’t be. Samwise Gamgee is a powerful hero if there ever was one. His rough and tumble hobbit strength is one of the biggest and brightest highlights of the entire story. His deep, undying loyalty to his master is an incredible testimony to his inner fortitude, and his sacrificial efforts to keep Frodo alive and on track are awe-inspiring.
And don’t forget, Sam also is a ring-bearer for a short while. This unassuming little Shire-dweller possesses the One Ring for several hours at least. While he doesn’t use it to do much, that doesn’t change the fact that his power potential is off the charts during that time. Sam’s deep strength, along with his history as one of the few beings to ever bear the One Ring, makes him a surprising yet worthy candidate on a list full of magicians and monsters.
Frodo Baggins is a righteous ring bearer
The ultimate ring bearer and hero of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo Baggins ends up proving that he’s more powerful than the wisest beings in Middle-earth had even hoped. While he’s tough enough on the outside, Frodo’s real strength is all interior. It’s hard to tell in a movie adaptation, but Frodo’s struggle with the lure of the ring, and his ability to fend off the temptation for so long, demonstrates a greater level of power and self-control than virtually anyone else.
And then there’s the fact that Frodo also has that veiled yet present power that comes with possessing the most powerful piece of jewelry in the world. From the moment he picks up the ring after Bilbo’s long-expected party, Frodo quietly takes his place as one of the mightiest beings in existence, even if he doesn’t choose to demonstrate his power until the final moments in Mount Doom.
Aragorn is a guy that you don’t want to mess with
Simply put, Aragorn is the man. In fact, in the book The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf actually says "there are few left in Middle-earth like Aragorn son of Arathorn." After all, the Chieftain of the Dúnedain’s resume is impressively long.
Let’s start with the obvious stuff from the movies. He’s a capable warrior that isn’t afraid of a fight. He takes on Sauron one-on-one through the palantír on purpose. He’s wise, experienced, and ultimately ends up being worthy of leading a nation. He inspires the Rohirrim at Helm’s Deep, takes command of the army of the dead, leads the armies of Gondor, and becomes a powerful king in his own right.
On top of that, the appendix of The Return of the King goes on to explain that even before the events of the War of the Ring, Aragorn had fought with the Rohirrim and had even saved Gondor from a serious threat when he was younger, although he was using another name so no one knew who he was. While he may be a "mortal man," there’s no doubt that Aragorn can hold his own with the most powerful creatures in Middle-earth.
Treebeard is a super powerful plant
Ents are awesome. Their sheer physical strength alone is out of this world. They can tear up stones like clods of dirt, they can actually move very fast, and their long-brewing anger and vengeance is terrifying when it boils over. And out of all of the ents, their chief, Treebeard, is the most incredible of them all. The "shepherd of the trees" isn’t just filled with ancient wisdom — he’s one of the oldest beings in Middle-earth.
He’s the epitome of Teddy Roosevelt’s old saying to speak softly and carry a big stick, especially since Treebeard literally is a stick. The walking arboreal wonder is calm and collected, hiding a power that, when unleashed, literally breaks Isengard to bits. Of course, part of that power is tied up in the fact that the ent leader isn’t just strong in his own right. The guy has a force of other ents at his beck and call, plus an army of Huorns to boot.
Elrond is one of the wisest characters in The Lord of the Rings saga
Elrond represents a lot of different things within Tolkien’s world. He’s descended from heroes of both men and elves, and he was given the choice of immortality or mortality. Obviously, the dude chose immortality. Who wouldn’t? He wields Vilya, the Ring of Sapphire, which is generally considered the most powerful of the three elven rings. He also represents one of Sauron’s greatest enemies throughout the story, as he leads the stronghold of Rivendell in northern Middle-earth.
But the thing that puts Elrond so high in our rankings isn’t so much his physical strength or his political power, even if he did use them both to help defeat Sauron in the War of the Last Alliance. It’s his wisdom that sets the elf apart. Elrond is revered throughout Middle-earth as a source of deep, experiential knowledge that only an elven lord can possess. People come from far and wide to see what he thinks about their issues. Heck, the Council of Elrond is literally named after the guy. While he’s powerful in many ways, Elrond’s wisdom is uniquely powerful, and it wins him a spot on the list without question.
The balrog is a fire demon with ferocious power
While The Silmarillion is loaded with balrogs, by the time The Lord of the Rings takes place, there’s only one known balrog left called Durin’s Bane. The name is a reference to the fact that it was hidden in Khazad-dûm for thousands of years, until mining dwarves under King Durin woke it up from hibernation and paid for the mistake with their lives.
Initially called the "Nameless Terror," the balrog literally defeated an entire kingdom of dwarves and then terrified the nearby Elves of Lothlorien. In fact, it was thanks to the monster that the elves renamed the place Moria or "the Black Pit." The fearful power of the balrog is clearly demonstrated by how scared elves, dwarves, and even wizards become at the mere mention of his name. Gandalf is nearly killed by the demon in single combat. While there are a lot of major villains in the story, the balrog makes the shortlist for the most powerful baddies of them all.
Saruman is a magical and malicious villain
Saruman is a wizard — one of a handful of supernatural beings, called maiar, who are sent to Middle-earth to help fight Sauron. But he isn’t just a wizard, though. Before he broke bad, he was the chief of their order. He was also the head of the Council of the Wise, which meant he was respected and powerful enough to oversee personalities like Gandalf, Galadriel, and Elrond.
Once he changes allegiances and joins up with Sauron, he transforms Isengard into a heavy-hitting little kingdom. His armies are made of Uruk-hai, a superior orc hybrid that he invents through his own cunning. In the books, it’s even implied that he makes his own rings of power, as The Fellowship of the Ring refers to him as "Saruman Ring-maker".
Ultimately, the only reason Saruman get the number four spot is that his pride gets the better of him. Power-hungry doesn’t directly translate to powerful, and Saruman’s betrayal of his friends and bid for his own kingdom ultimately shatters his own strength and leads to his untimely death.
Galadriel is the most powerful elf in Middle-earth
Galadriel has been around for a really, really long time. She’s one of the original elves that lived in the West, before returning to Middle-earth where she ruled as a queen. She’s shared political power with her husband, Celeborn, for centuries, and the couple has represented a dynamic force throughout a hefty chunk of Middle-earth history.
Along with her political status, experience, and wisdom, Galadriel’s power is physically manifested in her possessions. For one thing, she’s the owner of another of the three elven rings, Nenya, the Ring of Adamant. In addition to this, she also has her mirror. The Mirror of Galadriel is a powerful tool that the elven queen is able to control, commanding it to reveal specific information whenever she wishes. From her literally age-old wisdom (she’s lived through three ages and more) to her magical tools and army of elven warriors, the majestic queen is without a doubt the most powerful elf in Middle-earth.
Nobody is getting past Gandalf
Few characters demonstrate their power in The Lord of the Rings more often than Gandalf. From fancy fireworks in the Shire to illuminating the way through Moria with his staff, the Grey Wizard is constantly wowing us with his abilities. What’s crazier is, most of the time, he’s just showing the tip of the magical iceberg.
Along with his wizardly abilities, he’s also the bearer of the third elven ring, Narya, the Ring of Fire. And Gandalf’s superhero status is shown in the fact that he resists the temptation of the ring, defeats Durin’s Bane, puts Saruman in his place, selflessly helps Aragorn regain his throne, and ultimately proves to be the chief mover and shaker in the fight against Sauron. Most importantly, he does all of this without ever betraying his friends, a fact that launches him above far above Saruman. When it comes to being wizard, there’s no passing Gandalf.
Sauron is the most powerful character in The Lord of the Rings
Last, and absolutely not least, we have Sauron. The Dark Lord is on a power level all his own, as he’s directly responsible for the death of countless kings, kingdoms, and people throughout Middle-earth history. He was barely stopped in the War of the Last Alliance (the opening scene in The Fellowship of the Ring), and by the time of The Lord of the Rings, his armies have become so invincible that the entire world is desperately attempting to unify in the hopes they won’t all be crushed by him.
Along with that, there’s Sauron’s incredibly strong, dark inner power. He’s known as the Necromancer before he becomes the Eye of Sauron, and let’s not forget that it’s his own power that fuels the One Ring itself. His soldiers are unstoppable, his spiritual magic is off the charts, and his only kryptonite is the destruction of the One Ring itself. No wonder Sauron is more powerful than any other wizard, elf, or mortal man in the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.