And Saruman spoke: "So Gandalf was just about to enter the fray of the most important and dangerous battle of Third Age of Middle Earth, the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, and suddenly was challenged with a choice -- should I stay or should I go? He had been sent back after death, ostensibly by heaven, and endowed with powers that made him now second only to Sauron. Here before him was the battle that would determine whether Gondor fell, and with it, as he had said repeatedly, absolutely the rest of Middle Earth."
"But before all this, one of the little hobbits -- you, Pippen -- told him that Faramir was about to be burned alive in some old barbaric pagan ritual and no one was around other than the warrior Berragond, who, as it turns out, was in process of killing all the guards... and thereby maybe rescuing Faramir himself if maybe he had a little extra help -- like, perhaps, yours, Pippen? to prevent this from happening. Faramir's importance was pretty much zero at this point, other than his being close in nature and sympathy to Gandalf. With the King returned, he wasn't going to rule Gondor. There is no mention of his being a possible second carrier of the Ring, owing to his ability to refuse the Ring -- and readily -- if offered it, and thus to be kept "available" if somehow Frodo's will failed but not Faramir's frequently referred to wizardly foresight to perhaps in desperation locate it. And so Gandalf decides to go help Faramir and ends up missing the entirety of the battle. The whole god-damned thing. The greatest piece on the board, greater than the Nazgul-king, skipped town."
"Why did he do this, what drew him to make THIS choice, rather than the evidently wiser one of committing himself to battle? In battle, as he himself had admitted, he was equal to a thousand troops, and as much as legend held it that the Nazgul king couldn't be killed by a man, he certainly could have served as a force mostly likely to distract him so that Merry and Eowyn could surprise him from behind and finish him off. And of course, there were OTHER Nazgul around, killing hundreds of troops... against these he would have helped, this army onto himself, big-time."
"Gandalf WAS needed on the battlefield. With him there, maybe thousands of troops wouldn't have died, and maybe not even King Theoden, who served as the lure he otherwise would have served as -- the great rival, as he was, to his power. All he had to do was say, "sorry Pippen, I love Faramir to death, but you're a weak fool to try to tempt me with this when you know it would leave our troops without their leader and their most powerful weapon of artillery," and thereafter waded into the fray, a great and responsible leader."
"So why didn't he do exactly this? Here's one possibility: the practice of barbaric rituals disgusts him just that much! "What, have we all gone back to the stone age and will soon be bongo-drumming and practicing primitive communism as well?!?! That's plenty worse than god-damned Sauron, who feasts his troops filth but is at least an appreciator of a kind of civilization and finery!" Here's another: he's chicken, and further, not anywhere near as powerful as he had inflated himself up to be, and was already looking for some way to avoid finding himself called out on this and thereby suffer complete humiliation when you supplied such a good one for him. Yes, his grey self -- the older version of him -- fought the Balrog (or so his newer version claimed, for did you see it?... did any of you Fellowship? Maybe the Balrog slipped back into the depths entirely; had escaped; was gone -- Gandalf never caught up with him -- and all that happened was that he found himself eventually at stairs which, in dodderly fashion, took a long while to climb up and heaven took pity on him and dusted him off?), but at the previous last big battle, the one at Helm's Deep, what did Gandalf do but take to the hills just as the battle was about to get started?"
"Everyone else had to do the bleeding -- and boy, there was a lot of it there! -- until morning, whence he returned where no one could see exactly what he was doing out there, with an army of trees around to stomp out the remaining orcs, and also with the army he had ostensibly brought with him, charging about in thick ruckus. I suspect he kind of just stood there doing what Denethor said all "greats" actually do when battle is engaged: nothing; just sit in place while the battle goes about, bidding everyone do the dirty work. No wonder Gandalf remained white all through: no grime or dirt from battle ever did settle...."
But Saruman, the hobbits finally asked, "didn't Gandalf fight the battle at the gates of Morannan?" And Saruman replied, "Of that, you'll have to tell me. I know certainly that he was there, but in your account of the battle that you described to Bilbo, there is no mention of Gandalf at battle, of him actually fighting anything -- certainly something worth a description or two if he was the army onto himself he had told everyone he was. What there is of him in the account is a lot of him talking... refusing terms, talking big, and, oh, grabbing a bunch of really, really valuable relics for himself."
"Oh I know he finally gave these back to Frodo, but of course everyone witnessed his taking them, didn't they? and would have wondered what had become of them -- these immensely valuable items -- if Gandalf hadn't laid them back at this feet subsequently, the wonderful good friend and benefactor that he is. How sure are you that he hadn't taken them, not to spite the Mouth of Sauron but because he had just learned that Frodo had failed on his quest, and knew that in the new barbaric age about to unfold he needed to settle himself up as well as he could as fast he could, so not perish, like the rest of you fools?"
"How sure are you that ultimately his survival instincts aren't so that he immediately switched tactics and loyalties -- right then and there -- under pretence of a different kind? How sure are you that he wasn't about to also use cover, the cover of battle, to sneak away, finding some small hidden series of hills he could lord over, with wealth from the sale of one very valuable coat of mithrail coat: worth a whole set of villages, a whole Shire and everything in it, didn't you know? That's the kind of thing that white wizards, actually, are wont to do, as you all know so well. So too cloaking their actual intentions while seeming to be keeping faith. They put spells on you all, do they not, my dear hobbits?"