The White Rider
One of the more perplexing scenes in The Lord of the Rings takes place on the outskirts of the forests of Fangorn, when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli meet the mysterious old man and uncover him as – SPOILER ALERT! – Gandalf. Why should Gandalf be so coy and reserved with them? Why let them assume he is their enemy Saruman, and only reveal his true nature after they have made efforts to attack him? And why refrain from telling them more about the fate of the hobbits, or of himself, beyond riddles without much pressing on their parts?
An initial hypothesis might be that Gandalf wants to test them. He has been away from the Company for a long time, and he does not know much of what has passed save that Frodo went his own way. Perhaps he is concerned why they would desert Frodo, or that some other change of heart had come on them. But this does not seem congruent with Gandalf’s character, or with his long relationship with Aragorn and the largely incorruptible nature of the Elves. As well, he has seen Galadriel in recent days, and hear from her all that had happened, so surely he would know that at least these three of the Fellowship had remained true.
Gandalf may instead be seeking to warn them. As he notes later on, he has often counselled his friends “to suspect even their own hands when dealing with the Enemy.” Perhaps this show of Gandalf serves as a reminder that there is much that is dangerous and mysterious that lies on their journey ahead, and they must assume nothing and use wisdom with every interaction. This would foreshadow their coming dealings with both Theoden of Rohan and Denethor of Gondor, and may also link to the fact that Gandalf, since he has become Saruman “as he should have been,” needs people to actively choose him again as opposed to blindly trusting him by name.
Yet, this does not fully feel correct, and I suspect another aspect is at play: Gandalf’s memory. “I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten.” Gandalf struggle with the Balrog, rebirth, and his wrestling with Sauron to save Frodo when he put on the Ring have spent much of Gandalf’s energy, and because he has been sent back, he is no longer “Gandalf” as he once was. The name is a memory to him, because he has been renewed. So too his relationships with each of the Three Hunters: they exist, but they are also memories, memories that must be made real again through interaction, through the speaking of a name, through a moment of recollection. If we accept that when Gandalf says that every day as he lay on the mountain-top was as long as a life-age of the earth, then for Gandalf, eons have seemingly passed. It is not surprising that such an interaction might take place, then.
Such musing do not achieve the full heart of Gandalf’s “transfiguration” before the Three Hunters: there is an element of mystery that defies all explanation. But such a moment speaks to we who live both in time and outside it, who also seek rebirth, transformation, and renewal. Memory is a tricky thing, and we also forget much we learn. We who are baptized in water enter into a new life, one that is both the same and different from the old one. When we are called by our old name, it may take time for us to realize that such a person is still ourselves. And sometimes there are mysteries that defy complete explanations.