There are a lot of kings in The Return of the King, to say the least. Whether good or evil, in Mordor or Rohan, the kings and leaders of the various peoples of Middle-earth play a defining role in the major clashes of the story. The central quest of the trilogy is all about the difference that even the smallest and most insignificant of people can make on the world, but while the quest of Frodo and Sam takes center stage, their mission to destroy the Ring is made possible by the clash of kings and armies taking place elsewhere. The impact of these kings in the story shifts the balance of forces time and time again, due to their charisma, foresight, and skill in battle. But with all of these considerations, who is the best king?
I know, I know. “But Denethor isn’t a king,” you say. And you are right. That is, of course, part of the point. Denethor is a steward of Gondor who clearly is threatened by the rise of a claimant to the throne and the rival he sees in Aragorn. But as the man in charge of the greatest and most historically significant kingdom of men left in Middle-earth, Denethor is essentially a king in everything but name.
That having been said, as a “king,” he definitely rounds out the bottom of the list. While he is a far more competent character in the books, Denethor in the films is an almost comically bad leader. He sends his only surviving son on a suicide mission to retake a city lost to the enemy, he fails to adequately prepare for battle or send messages to allies for aid, he tells the defenders of the city to run for their lives, he tries to burn his son alive, and his only passion in life seems to be to eat tomatoes in the most disgusting way possible.
5. The King of the Dead
The King of the Dead is in a strange place when it comes to his quality as a king, and not only because he’s, you know, dead. As a man who swore an oath to support King Isildur in the War of the Last Alliance, he brought a curse down upon himself and his people when he backed out of the oath and was banished to a twilight existence, condemned to eternal restlessness.
The reason he lands above Denethor, however, is that he at least takes advantage of the opportunity to redeem himself and his people. He is given a second chance to redeem his honor and fulfill his oath by coming to the aid of Aragorn in his hour of need, and so finally escapes his curse and goes to his rest.
4. The Witch-King of Angmar
As kings go, the Witch-King of Angmar is one of the most imposing characters in the trilogy but reaches his most terrifying form in The Return of the King. Endowed with new powers from Sauron, he leads a seemingly unstoppable army that washes over the defenders at Osgiliath and smashes down the mighty gates of Minas Tirith itself. He even takes on Gandalf in an extended scene and comes off on the better side of that fight as well.
Of course, he is not ultimately successful, and so doesn’t land as high on this list as he might have otherwise. His army is ultimately overwhelmed at Minas Tirith despite their massive numerical superiority, and his kingship is limited in that his rule is entirely overshadowed by that of Sauron. He is the Dark Lord’s most deadly and powerful servant, but is still ultimately a servant.
Theoden is a fascinating character in The Return of the King, and not only because he got to spearhead the most amazing chivalric charge in the history of cinema. The movie begins with a stinging insult from Saruman saying that Theoden does not match up to the great kings of old, and Theoden clearly worries that this might be the case after all. His son has died, his greatest victory belongs to another man, and his people are slowly falling into ruin.
But despite all of this, Theoden shows grit, determination, charisma, and strength of character that drives him and his army to the brink of the greatest battle of the Third Age. Even with inferior numbers against the overwhelming odds of the armies of Mordor led by the Witch-King, Theoden leads his people in a mighty charge that nearly wins the battle all on its own. It may have been foolhardy to lead his army into such a desperate battle, but it is impossible to watch the charge of the Rohirrim and still say that Theoden is not a great leader.
“But Sauron’s evil!” I hear you say. Yes, something about being a “Dark Lord on his Dark Throne in the land of Mordor where the shadows lie” does not seem like the sunniest job description. Nonetheless, you can’t terrorize all of Middle-earth for several thousand years without being somewhat effective at what you do. He came close to conquering all of Middle-earth multiple times, and his power and terror were unsurpassed by any other king in the story.
Despite all of these advantages, however, just like the Witch-King, Sauron ultimately fails and cannot overcome the courage, integrity, friendship, and hope of those who stand against him. While he is one of the most powerful beings in existence, his lust for power and desire for control ultimately become his undoing as the Ring he made to conquer the free world ultimately destroys him.
Who else could it be but Aragorn? He is the long-lost is heir to Gondor and has a kingly lineage stretching back for thousands of years into the mythic past of Middle-earth. He is almost a mythic figure himself, bringing hope to desperate allies and calling upon the ancient spirits of the dead to rally to his banner and fight for his cause. His coronation marks the pinnacle of the story, and it is after him that The Return of the King is named, after all. He is fierce against his enemies and gracious to his friends, transitions from battle-hardened warrior to king of a new age of peace, and rules a prosperous realm justly for 122 years. Not bad for a scruffy-looking ranger.
Moreover, what puts Aragorn over the top is the way that he completes the themes of kingship within the movie itself. What ultimately separates the good kings from the wicked ones is not their authority or their power, but their motivation and actions. The reason that Theoden charged at Minas Tirith against overwhelming odds is the same reason that Aragorn took to the Paths of the Dead in the face of certain doom and charged at the massed armies at the Black Gate. While the forces of evil relied on overwhelming power and might, and Denethor gave in to despair, the kings of the story with the strongest fortitude were those who held on to hope in doing what was right. Of those, Aragorn was certainly the greatest.