Back in the dark days, before Peter Jackson’s outstanding film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved fantasy world, if you asked fans what moment they most wanted to see it could only be Gandalf’s duel with Durin’s Bane. And Jackson did not disappoint, stunning audiences with a duel that was tense, hard-hitting, and every bit as epic as they had imagined.
But in the long history of Middle-earth, that duel, for all its iconic power, was small fry. Travel back to The Silmarillion and we come to the First Age, a time where elves fought gods and men confronted dragons the size of mountains. It was to the Third Age what the Trojan War was to the ancient Greeks, the living arena of their mightiest heroes, and it should come as no surprise that the names on this list come from that time.
But before we begin, some rules must be set. The list looks at characters we have good records for and who participated in largely one-on-one duels against opponents whose power can be measured. Sadly, this rules out fan favourites like Húrin. We will also assume that the Balrogs in The Silmarillion are at the same power level as Durin’s Bane from The Lord of the Rings.
So sit back and relax as we look at the ten fighters who, through the most epic duels ever seen, established themselves as the greatest combatants to walk Middle-earth.
The eponymous Lord of the Rings and one of the most iconic villains of all time Sauron the Great needs no introduction. If so, what is he doing so far down the list?
While powerful, Sauron, like Morgoth, was more deceiver than fighter. Even during the First Age, when his power was greatest and he was chief of Morgoth’s lieutenants, Sauron spent his time in the shadows rather than on the battlefield, running Morgoth’s affairs, gathering intelligence and breeding twisted monstrosities.
That said he was no pushover. He famously defeated Gil-Galad, High King of the Nõldor, and Elendil, King of the Dúnedain, in combat, losing the Ring to a beaten Isildur only because of hubris, not a lack of skill. And even the ring-less Sauron of the Third Age was powerful enough that it required the entire White Council – Gandalf, Galadriel and Elrond among them – to drive him from Dol Guldur, and even then it is implied he withdrew willingly.
Though unquestionably the most powerful fighter of the Third Age, he was not the greatest of the First and that is why he comes in at number ten.