While lovers of classic Tolkien lit and lovers of modern Tolkien films either overlap or debate the merits of their favorite representation of The Lord of the Rings, we can all agree that each time we lose one of our most beloved characters it hits us hard in the feels. Both J.R.R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson gave us versions of incredible heroes who fought against the odds to save Middle Earth and we’ll always miss the ones we lost.
That said, some of the greatest losses in the series also involve those who put Middle Earth at the most risk, and while celebrating destruction may be frowned upon, we also value those major deaths for their contributions to the series.
Smeagol’s best friend isn’t just his buddy but his blood relative, one of the Stoor Hobbits. His departure wasn’t the most major death of the series since we really didn’t get to know the man all that well, even if he did seem rather good-natured. But his demise did stir feelings of sorrow in us not only because it was such a tragedy, but because it led to the downfall of Smeagol himself into the creature Gollum.
This is also the moment we witness how the ring can truly destroy the heart of a simple hobbit, which makes Frodo and Sam’s journey all the more moving. How they were able to resist the ring all the way into Mordor was truly an impressive feat.
9 King Théoden
Witnessing the death of King Théoden was so difficult because we had already watched him suffer so much. The man missed the death of his own son, Théodred, and his entire kingdom fell into ruin while Gríma Wormtongue, who was controlled by Sarumon, poisoned his mind. After Gandalf the White came to his rescue, it felt so fulfilling to see him rise back into his kingly state, particularly when that meant fighting alongside his people, so when it came to his final loss in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (over the city of Minas Tirith), it truly was a “dawnless day.”
Éowyn was definitely hit hardest by his loss, especially since she’d fought hard to save him in the first place, but you can’t have a war without experiencing terrible losses.
8 Denethor II
As the Steward Of Gondor, Denethor II suffered not only from delusions of grandeur from the power trip of his position but also a slow-building disturbed mind due to the loss of his beloved firstborn son, Boromir. His loss was a mixed bag as it presented both an opportunity for his younger son, Faramir, to survive his father’s suicidal funeral pyre but also represented an necessary descent into madness.
Had Denethor II only embraced his younger son, he could have avoided so much loss in both his own family as well as Faramir’s men. Luckily Faramir survived to enjoy a happy ending with Éowyn as the first Prince of Ithilien.
When we lost Saruman the White, it was even more bittersweet than Denethor II’s descent into madness. Saruman was once a wise and powerful wizard who worked on the side of good, and Aragorn said that, “Once he was as great as his fame made him. His knowledge was deep, his thought was subtle, and his hands marvelously skilled.” He also admitted that he had power over the minds of others, however, even then.
While some may have longed for Saruman to experience redemption, it simply wouldn’t have worked out. The wizard ended up too cunning and corrupted to make a comeback, so even though we mourn his loss at the hands of Grima Wormtongue (who slit his throat rather than his back in the book), we also understand that there weren’t many other options for the wizard.
We can all agree that losing Sean Bean in any of his many forms is always a sad day. Enough memes have been made about Boromir and Eddard Stark to demonstrate how hard we take it when he’s gone. Boromir’s loss, unlike many of the deaths in the LOTR films and books, marked a redemption for the character whose misguided desire to use the ring for good ultimately rendered him a danger to it and Middle Earth itself.
Boromir redeemed himself by defending the hobbits and paying the ultimate price in the process. As Aragorn told him, he fought bravely and kept his honor in the end.
5 The Balrog
The Balrog of Morgoth, also known as Durin’s Bane, is pretty much the Grendal to Gandalf’s Beowulf. While we have many monsters destroyed at the hands of heroes in the series, this particular monster represents so much: revenge for Gimli’s kin, one of the best battles in the films, a hero freeing not only his own company but the entire mines of Moria from unholy terror and ultimately the transformation of Gandalf the Grey himself.
Durin’s Bane represented 500 years of terror in the mines that Gimli’s fellow dwarves called home and in sacrificing himself for both the Fellowship and the Balrog’s destruction, Gandalf rid a portion of Middle Earth of evil as a first major step toward securing the safety of the entire land.
4 Gandalf The Grey
Gandalf the Grey’s loss was one of the most significant in the series not only because it marked a selfless sacrifice in which Gandalf gave his own life to help his company to safety, imploring with them, “Fly, you fools!” but also because it transformed him into a new, powerful White Wizard, which was just what the Fellowship needed in order to stand a chance against Saruman.
Olórin’s return was one of the happiest moments in the entire series, giving joy to the fans who thought they’d lost him for good as well as the Fellowship itself–particularly poor Frodo, who didn’t know his friend had made it out alive until they met again at the end.
3 The Witch-King Of Ang-Mar
The Witch-King’s death itself was a much-needed win for the heroes of Middle Earth since the Black Captain, also known as the Lord of the Nazgûl, controlled the Ringwraiths and gave the Frodo and his companions, as well as the humans of Middle Earth, so much trouble. His demise was considered unattainable since no man could slay him, but we all know what happened next.
The fact that Éowyn slayed the Witch-King is so significant because there aren’t any other women as heroes in the story. Sure, Galadriel and Arwyn play their parts but Tolkien isn’t known for writing many roles for strong women–or positive roles for people of color, for that matter. Arwyn gives the film some much-needed representation and the Witch-King’s death proves that women can be heroes and that, along with one of the tale’s main themes, no one should be underestimated.
Even after all he’s done, the loss of Gollum still seems bittersweet after witnessing just how badly the ring warped the creature’s mind. The person he once was long forgotten, Gollum steals the ring and finally possesses his beloved Precious even as he falls to his doom with it in Mount Doom itself.
In this moment, Gollum does what Frodo could not and destroys the One Ring, even without meaning to do so. He unwittingly saves Middle Earth, destroys Sauron and proves, once and for all, that underestimating the significance of anyone, as Gandalf predicted, would be a terrible mistake.
The most major death in all of the Lord of the Rings films is obviously Sauron’s. It was the goal of the Fellowship to destroy the ring and its master to protect Middle Earth all along, and when he perished all of their hard work, all of the other losses here, gained meaning. No heroes died in vain and no monsters were vanquished without purpose.
Sauron’s demise proved not only that there was good left in the world to vanquish evil, but that even the smallest of us can make the biggest difference. This is the magic of Tolkien’s work and even with its issues, it reminds us that, as Sam told Frodo, “in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something.”
NEXT: 10 Storylines From The LotR Books That Should Be Made Into Their Own Movies