A few nights back I was relaxing with my wife, watching the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and drinking a few beers. You know, a typical Friday night for two nerdy twenty-somethings. After watching the memorable scene when Gandalf showed up the forests of Fangorn, newly upgraded to White status, I started to wonder about the legitimacy of his story. Is it possible the Saruman was masquerading around as Gandalf the White for the last half of the Lord of the Rings?
Even though Saruman is primarily cast as power-hungry and industrious (a mind of metal of wheels, according to old Treebeard), there are several references to his trickery in Tolkien's books. He is rumored to sneak around, especially through the woods, concealed and secretive. His voice is known to bewitch with only a few words (some of which is seen through his agent, Gríma Wormtongue, with Théoden King). The leader of the wizards of Middle-earth, who is known for trickery and deceipt, seems perfectly capable of mimicking a lesser wizard.
A Questionable Resurrection
Dead is dead in the Lord of the Rings. No one comes back, even a wizard… except for Gandalf. I've heard/read that his resurrection was orchestrated by Eru Ilúvatar himself, the supreme being of Tolkien's universe. However, there is a distinct lack of details in the books, even from Gandalf himself. It is more likely that he did die fighting Durin's Bane, the Balrog of Moria, and that Saruman constructed a quick story to explain his apparent death-defying feat.
Never in the Same Room
Saruman and Gandalf have few encounters in the Lord of the Rings. Their main interaction was in Orthanc before the Fellowship was even formed. In fact, after 'Gandalf the White' shows up in Fangorn, Saruman really fades into the backstory. There is one meeting after Isengard was flooded, with what appears to be Saruman far up in the tower communicating with Gandalf the White below. This could have easily been staged while the real Saruman stayed below, pretending to be Gandalf.
But why would Saruman do this? After all, he was enslaved by Sauron through one of the palantiri and was breeding his own orcs to coincide with the armies of Mordor. What could he have gained by pretending to be a dead wizard? I think he was looking for an escape route.
Saruman wasn't completely sold on Mordor winning. He was scheming to get his hands on the One Ring for a while, clearly against Sauron's will. If he was using the palantír, looking around at all of his options, he may have also looked into the necessity of an escape route. By pretending to be Gandalf the White he could help defeat his main competition (Sauron), assist in destroying the One Ring (if he can't have it no one can), stage his own death (whether that is falling off of Orthanc or up at the Shire), all while parading around as one of Middle-earth's most beloved and powerful 'reborn' wizards. Then, when everything has settled down, he would return to Aman as the one successful Istari and enjoy the benefits (power) that come with that accomplishment.
So, was Gandalf the White really Saruman? I feel like Tolkien left plenty in his books open for interpretation, and, whether intentional or not, never really rules out this possibility. It also leaves some room for grey in his black-and-white stories... While Saruman was 'evil', if he did pose as Gandalf the White he still helped defeat Sauron, even if it was just to suit his own means and garner respect from the Valar. Or maybe he was just a punk wizard who was a little misunderstood trying to reach out and fix his ways... Either way, it makes for an interesting possibility.