Ultimately, Heartless is a story about undeserved grace. This is the theme at the core of all Una’s adventures and perils. It is impossible to tell a story of undeserved grace without the theme of sacrifice playing a dominant role.
To sacrifice is to give up something, something we value highly, usually to gain something we want more. It isn’t quite the same bartering or bargaining, though it is similar. Think of the Old Testament sacrifices of long ago. The people of that day and age would sacrifice their best lambs and goats on God’s alter as a demonstration of honor and love. This was often in hopes that God would respond to their gift with blessing . . . but the proper form of sacrifice wasn’t this “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” deal. It was an outpouring of thankfulness. Gratitude for God’s bounty, for His provision. They were willing to give up valued livestock in order to better express their thanks.
We don’t usually think of sacrifice in this context, however. It is much more natural for our selfishly human minds to think in terms of, “Well, if I give this up, do I get something better in return?”
But the sacrifice that is made purely for love, with no expectation of return, is the rarest and most beautiful.
We see sacrifices being made on a lot of levels throughout the tale. Almost all of them are selfishly motivated. Lionheart sacrifices his honor in return for safety. Una sacrifices her heart in hopes of gaining a forlorn dream. The yellow-eyed dragon, Diarmid, sacrifices his freedom for the sake of choosing his own form of slavery.
In the end, only one sacrifice makes the difference. Aethelbald offers his life in the very jaws of the Dragon in order to reclaim Una’s heart. Not for himself! No, for when Aethelbald comes to Una in the second-to-last chapter, he has the opal ring that represents Una’s heart in his possession. But he does not keep it. He gives it back to her. He has fought the good fight, reclaimed what Una so foolishly tossed away, sacrificed everything for the sake of giving her back what no longer is truly hers.
Una knows it. That is why, she is the one to make the final sacrifice. She gives Aethelbald her heart. And here, we see her giving a sacrifice in the old context. Not in hopes of getting something she wants . . . no, for she has finally learned to forgo her stubborn self-will. She gives Aethelbald her heart because she knows it is what he longs for. And out of gratitude, out of love, out of pure joy in the goodness that is the Prince of Farthestshore, she offers him her heart.
What a long journey my foolish young Una went on. But I believe, to learn the true meaning of sacrifice, it was worth every painful step.
Hebrews 13:15: “. . . let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess His name”.