Everyone knows that True Love’s First Kiss is a classic symbol in fairy tale literature, possibly the most important symbol of all. It is a powerful thing, this kiss, able to break enchantments and conquer enemies all by virtue of its purity, its selflessness. Before a prince can win such a kiss, he must brave untold dangers. Before a princess can win such a kiss, she must experience sorrow and, usually, near-death.
Both characters symbolically cross that barrier from childhood to adulthood by these rites of passage. Only then do they earn the right to that first kiss, which marks the beginning of a new stage of life . . . a stage of life that can no longer be about the autonomous self. A stage that suddenly must put the other person first, which is the first sign of true maturity.
Heartless takes that kiss and twists it.
Una, a dreamy romantic, is ready to meet her Prince Charming and to be swept away in haze of butterflies and rainbows. But she has not yet become a woman and left childish ways behind her. She is still selfish, focused more on her own desires than on the needs of those around her. In no way has she been made ready for True Love’s First Kiss . . . but she does not see it that way. She is determined to have her dream-come-true, no matter how foolish her decisions might be, refusing to see the value of real love in place of some idealized fancy.
Thus the Dragon steps in. And it is his kiss that Una receives. Not true love, but true selfishness which, more than hate, is the opposite of love.
The Dragon tells her, “I’ve released you, my sister, my child! I’ve allowed you to become what you truly are, what you have been all this time. Now you may embrace the freedom of your spirit unbound!” (p. 227)
The Dragon’s kiss does not mark a progression for Una, moving from girl to woman. Instead, it marks a deepening of her already natural tendencies. Rather than growth, Una experiences death. The Death-in-Life, in one fell swoop, destroys those small shoots of new life that might be growing from her infatuation with Lionheart and makes her now live a life totally focused on herself, her hurts, her fire. The kiss of the Dragon is the antithesis of True Love’s kiss in every way.
The question of the kiss came up a couple of times in the later stages of drafting this novel. Particularly the scene where Lionheart takes of leave of Una and asks for her promise to wait for him. Several readers felt that they needed to share a kiss to seal their vows. Instead, Lionheart takes Una’s ring and only touches her cheek gently before leaving. Was this enough, people wondered? Was this strong enough to bind Una’s heart to the prince?
I knew, however, that this could not be Una’s first kiss. This is a fairy tale, not real life, and in fairy tale, symbols like that are of utmost importance. To trivially give away the first kiss simply to make a scene more romantic . . . no, no! Such would be a crime against the genre! Her kiss with Lionheart could not be True Love’s kiss, for Una, as much as she thinks she loves the jester/prince, is still focused on herself and her desires. Until she comes to a place of humility and can learn to set herself aside for the sake of another, she will never know True Love’s kiss. It would just be a kiss. Nothing symbolic. Just a kiss.
That is why the Dragon’s kiss becomes so important! It is the culmination of everything Una has been working toward so far. It is the just reward for her selfishness, the twisted Fairy Tale Ending. She has made her world entirely about her, and now the Dragon will let that become her reality.
But that doesn’t mean Una never experiences True Love’s Kiss. Those of you who have read Heartless probably remember. It is, quite possibly, the most important scene in the story. Not exactly romantic, at least, not in the sense Una always considered romantic up until then. But it is the offering of true, unselfish love. And it marks the beginning of Una’s transformation into someone who lives, not for self, but for the sake of others, for the sake of her Beloved. She is no longer a small, self-centered creature, but is becoming something bigger by releasing her right to her own will.
Ah, the power of symbols in Fairy Tales! And this is possibly one of my favorites.