The Arcadian hunter Milanion is struck by Atalanta's beauty as he watches her run a race against an unsuccessful suitor, and learns from bystanders that Atalanta, the only child of King Schoeneus, was exposed by Schoeneus as an infant. Nursed by a bear and raised by forest-dwellers, the child has survived to return to her father's court, and now confronts prospective suitors with a bleak alternative: they must either defeat her in a footrace or die. Despite attempts by Schoeneus and others to dissuade him, Milanion quickly arranges to race Atalanta, and visits Venus's temple to beseech her aid. After a night's vigil, the goddess appears and rewards his fervor with the gift of three golden apples, to be used as distractions during the race. In the event, however, Morris's Atalanta is distracted less by golden apples than by vain longings, vague, without a name ... this vain pity never felt before, /This sudden languor, this contempt of fame. " At the finish line, Milanion embraces a suddenly willing bride, and a joyous wedding concludes the tale.
Morris's redaction of the tale drew principally on Lemprière'sClassical Dictionary and Book X of Ovid's Metamorphoses, to which he added a few details from Ovid's Ars Amatoria and Apollodorus's Biblloteca. He extensively revised these sources to mitigate the principal characters' rapacity, and bring the tale's emotional nuances and 'romantic' sensibilities into clearer and more acceptable relief. In Lemprière and Ovid, for example, Atalanta routinely dispatches several suitors at once, and Ovid's Schoeneus personally kills each one who fails. Ovid's Milanion sees Atalanta race another suitor, challenges her, prays briefly to Cytherea and runs his race--all in one day.
Morris's characters, by contrast, are more deliberate and consistent in their behavior, and their actions somewhat better motivated and more defensible. Morris's Milanion actually prepares himself spiritually for the race for sixty-two days, and his solitary devotion to Venus becomes the centerpiece of the tale. The "race" also becomes almost incidental, since Milanion's sincerity and sensual ardor are the traits that incline Atalanta's heart. Other changes include Morris's interpolation of Atalanta's responses during and after the race, and his rejection of Ovid's incongruous transformation of the married pair into beasts (for "defilement" of Venus's temple). Morris also condemns the young lovers' aged and repressive elders, and expresses strong distaste for the social corruption and royal autocracy implicit in Ovid's tale. Nonetheless he even forgives the infanticidal Schoeneus when the old tyrant succumbs to a spasm of fatherly goodwill.
Brief Critical Remarks:
Morris may well have chosen a tale especially familiar to his audience for The Earthly Paradise's first classical narrative, and its brevity, rapid pace, detailed descriptions, and careful infusion of plausible emotions create an undertone of blended pleasure and pathos. The poet who later dedicated the finished Earthly Paradise "to my wife" also chose to begin his series of internal narrations with an exemplary tale of earnest courtship by a solitary and sensitive young man, and he revised his sources rather pointedly to identify worthy love with emotional honesty and altruism--an identification which recurs in "The Story of Cupid and Psyche," "The Hill of Venus," and other tales.
Less attractive aspects of Morris's plot to twentieth-first century readers include its tendency to identify female autonomy with sexual hostility, and its gratuitous Victorian assumption that marriage is a universal end to which all aspirations flow. When Atalanta's initial independence melts into acquiescent "fear of success," and she and her attendants celebrate the loss of her "maiden zone, her arrows, and her bow," the tale's 'happy' closure obliquely recalls Tennyson's celebration of the collapse of Ida's hopes for a women's college in The Princess.
The tale also expresses other, more enduring values, however--values that recur in Morris's poetic work: his deep love of pastoral settings, his sense of life's beauty, and his open respect for "the worship of Venus." In the interconnective passage, Morris's more-than-Victorian faith in the centrality of erotic love finally shades into agape, and the narrative's recurrent sense of the brevity and contingency of all satisfactions reappears, as the frame tale's elderly narrators recall other voices and other rooms:
... the end of life so nigh,
The aim so little, and the joy so vain....
See Bellas, 46-54; Boos, 69-72; Calhoun, 129-33; Kirchhoff (1990), 158-59; Oberg, 62-64.
No early drafts of "Atalanta's Race" are extant, though the title was listed among the tales "in preparation" at the end of The Life and Death of Jason. The fair copy for the printer is in Huntington Library MS 4618.
"Atalanta" is absent from May Morris's list of the quarto manuscript drafts Morris prepared sometime between the summer of 1867 and the appearance of the first volume of The Earthly
Paradise in April, 1868.