When was Númenor doomed to destruction? From the course of the story one might conclude that the imprisonment of Sauron was the tipping point. However, just before Ar-Pharazôn lands in Aman he hesitates. Could Númenor have been saved in that moment?
As a Child of Eru the king had free will, so perhaps still had a choice in that moment. But choices are not made in a vacuum. He was bound by his personality and his previous choices. Would it be believable that Ar-Pharazôn (one who had rejected the Valar, cut down the White Tree, trusted to Sauron, railed against the thunderstorm eagles of Manwë, and had built a great navy for conquest) would turn back within sight of his destination? That seems implausible. Even though he hesitates on the threshold the king is already doomed by his character.
In a similar way we can look at the imprisonment of Sauron. If things had gone differently, could Númenor have survived? Perhaps they could have stormed Mordor and Sauron would have fled or been destroyed. This may have saved Númenor for a time, but I don’t think it would have stopped them from sailing West eventually. We see the sources of their discontent before Sauron. They had begun to fear their ‘gift’ of death. They had turned from gift-givers to conquerors, ruling over men in the East. Always there was a longing in their hearts to break a ban that they did not understand.
So when did it become inevitable that men would attempt to take Aman? I believe that it was inevitable even before men made any choices, before they originally fell in with Melkor. We see that “for in those days Valinor still remained in the world visible, and there Ilúvatar permitted the Valar to maintain upon Earth an abiding place, a memorial of that which might have been if Morgoth had not cast his shadow on the world. This the Númenóreans knew full well” (The Silmarillion, p. 313). Here lies the root of the problem. The Valar create a place free from the touch of evil and bar the entrance to people suffering under evil. Not only that, they make the place not all that distance from the suffering people. The elves regularly go back and forth between Aman and Middle-Earth. In Númenor one could actually see Tol Eressëa. If you hold a feast within sight of people starving to death you should expect trouble. It just is not surprising. It’s like you’re taunting them, deliberately holding the fruit above Tantalus’s reach.
If, upon their awakening, all men had joined together against Melkor they still would have been tempted to go West. Even if they were never servants of the darkness, they still would have suffered because of it. They would have been aware of a land in which they would not be assailed by disease, or orcs, or dragons. From this would come desire for Aman. We discussed the source of such desire in class, but we were much more positive about it. It was suggested that people have a natural inclination to turn to God. Sailing West seems to come directly from that. The West is a place in which there is light whereas the East holds darkness. The West has order, the East chaos. The West has piece, the East has war. Also in the West reside the Valar, children of Eru’s thought. To be close to them would be to be closer to Him. In the East there resided Melkor, who had strived against the plan of Eru. If you were given a choice between East and West, without the ban, it would seem to be not only more pleasant, but in fact more moral, to choose to go West. The ban of the Valar opposes not only the desires of the proud Sea-Kings, but also the natural inclination of every single human.
This argument appears to pose a problem for free will. The inevitability of the fall of man comes before even the first choice of man, residing in man’s nature and the world he is born into. Where is the free will in that account? How do you account for Amandil and the Elendili? For an answer to that question let’s turn to The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, a book written by University of Chicago professor John Mearshiemer. The book seeks to answer the question of why great states behave as they do, often conducting war upon each other? Mearsheimer says “my answer is that the structure of the international system forces states which seek only to be secure nonetheless to act aggressively towards each other…. This situation, which no one consciously designed or intended, is genuinely tragic*.” Such system-level accounts are not uncommon in political science. Forces can be named driving human actions without any mention of individual humans. This demonstrates the way in which things can be predetermined in a world with free will. Free will belongs to individuals. Large societies, or the race as a whole, do not have the same free will. The society is built up with so many tiny choices that there does not seem to be any choice.
Humanity as a whole may move down one path, but every individual must decide wheather to move down that path as well. Amandil chose for himself a different path. If Ar-Pharazôn had chosen a better path he may not have saved humanity forever, but he could have saved himself at least. Following the path of humanity does not excuse us our individual actions.
*Mearsheimer, John. The Tragedy of Great Power Politcs. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001, p. 3