Once upon a time, not long ago, there lived a princess named Atalanta, who could run as fast as the wind. She was so bright, and so clever, and could build things and fix things so wonderfully that many young men wished to marry her. "What shall I do?" said Atalanta's father, who was a powerful king. "So many young men want to marry you, and I don't know how to choose."
"You don't have to choose, father," said Atalanta. "I will choose. And I'm not sure that I will choose to marry anyone at all."
"Of course you will," said the king. "Everybody gets married. It's what people do."
"As for me," Atalanta told him, "I intend to go out and see the world. When I come home, perhaps I will marry, and perhaps I will not."
The king did not like this at all. He was a very ordinary king: powerful, and used to having his way. So he told Atalanta, "I have decided how to choose the young man you will marry. I will hold a great race, and the winner, the swiftest and fleetest young man of all, will win the right to marry you."
Now, Atalanta was a clever girl, as well as a swift runner, so she told her father, "Very well then, let there be a race. But you must let me run in it too. And if I am not the winner, I will accept the wishes of the young man who is. If I am the winner, I will choose for myself what I will do."
The king agreed to this. He would have his way, marry off his daughter, and enjoy a fine day of racing, as well. So he called his messengers together, and directed them to travel far and wide to announce the race with its wonderful prize: the chance to marry the bright Atalanta.
Meanwhile, Atalanta herself was preparing for the race. Each day at dawn, she went to the field in secret, until she could run the course in just three minutes, more quickly than anyone had ever run it before.
As the day of the race grew near, young men began to crowd into the town. Each was sure he could win the prize, the except for one. That was young John, who lived in the town. He knew Atalanta well, for he saw her day be day as she bought nails and wood to make a pigeon house, or sat reading a book in the gardens, or chose parts for her telescope, or laughed with her friends. Young John say the princess only from a distance, but he understood how bright and clever she was. He wished very much to race with her; to win and to earn the right to talk with her, and become her friend. "For surely," he said to himself, "it is not right for Atalanta's father to give her away to the winner of the race. Atalanta herself must choose whom she wants to marry, or whether she wishes to marry at all. Still, if I could only win the race, I would be free to speak to her, and to ask for her friendship!"
Each evening, after his studies of the stars and the seas, John went to the field in secret and practiced running across it. Night after night, he raced as fast as the wind across the twilight field, until he could cross it in three minutes, more quickly, he thought, than anyone had run across it before.
At last, the day of the race arrived. Trumpets sounded, and the young men gathered along the edge of the field, along with Atalanta herself, the prize that they sought. The king and his friends sat in soft chairs, and the townspeople stood along the course of the race. The king rose to address them all. "Good day!" he said to the crowds. "Good luck!" he said to the young men. To Atalanta, he said "Goodbye. I must tell you farewell, for tomorrow, you will be married."
"I am not too sure of that, father" Atalanta answered, and she went to stand in line with the young men. "Not one of them," she said to herself, "can win the race, for I will run as fast as the wind, and leave them all behind."
And now, a bugle sounded, and the runners were off!
The crowds cheered as the young men and Atalanta began to race across the field. At first, they ran as a group, but Atalanta soon pulled ahead, with three of the young men close after her. As they neared the half-way point, one of them put on a great burst of speed and seemed to pull ahead for an instant, but then gasped, and fell back. Atalanta shot on! Soon, another young man, tense with the effort, drew near to Atalanta. He reached out as if to touch her sleeve, stumbled for an instant, and lost speed. Atalanta smiled as she ran on. "I have almost won!" she thought. Just then another young man drew near to her. This was young John, running like the wind, as steadily and as swiftly as Atalanta herself. Atlanta felt his closeness, and in a sudden burst, she dashed ahead. But young John didn't give up. "Nothing at all," thought he, "will keep me from winning my chance to speak with Atalanta," and on he ran, swift as the wind, until he ran as her equal, side by side with her, toward the golden ribbon that marked the race's end. Atalanta was aware of him, and she raced even faster. But young John was a strong match for her. Smiling with the pleasure of the race, Atalanta and young John reached the finish line together, and together they broke through the golden ribbon that marked it!
Trumpets blew! The crowd shouted and leaped about! The king rose. "Who is this young man?" he asked.
"I am young John from the town," young John answered.
"Very well, young John," said the king, as John and Atalanta stood before him. "You have not won the race, but you have come closer to winning than any man here. And so I give you the prize that was promised: the right to marry my daughter."
Young John smiled at Atalanta, and she smiled back. "Thank you, sir," said John to the king, "but I could not possibly marry your daughter unless she wished to marry me. I have run this race for the chance to talk with Atalanta."
Atalanta laughed with pleasure. "And I," she said to John, "could not possibly marry you before I've gone out to see the world. But I would like nothing better than to spend the afternoon with you." And she held out her hand to young John, who took it. Then the two of them sat and talked on the grassy field. Atalanta told John about her telescopes and her pigeons, and John told Atalanta about his globes and his geography studies. At the end of the day, they were friends.
The next day, John set off by ship to discover new lands, and Atalanta set off on horseback to visit great cities. The king stayed home and thought about how the world was changing. When he was young, daughters always wanted to get married. But now Atalanta is still off in the world, visiting towns and cities, and John is still sailing the seas. Perhaps someday they'll be married, and perhaps they will not. In any case, it is certain they are both living happily ever after.
--Atalanta, Alan Alda "Free to Be You and Me"
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