Noli me tángere

‘Do not touch me.’

After his resurrection, Jesus said to Mary Magdalene: ‘Do not touch me…

John recorded the incident in his gospel and the phrase was rendered in Latin as ‘Noli me tángere.’ In Greek, its meaning is closer to ‘stop holding on to me’.

The Latin may not be a perfect translation but its sense is valid: it harks back to a Jewish tradition surrounding the Day of Atonement. The high priest, as he completed the annual sacrifice and came out from behind the curtain separating the Holy of Holies, would say: ‘Do not touch me.’

Behind the phrase is a sense of one who is consecrated, set apart, dedicated, in some way special.

This sense persists even outside the religious sphere. There is a story by the fourth century grammarian, Solinus, that three hundred years after the death of Caesar white stags were found with collars inscribed: ‘Noli me tángere. Caesaris sum — Do not touch me. I am Caesar’s.’

The picture is one of dedication, separation and inviolability.

At the risk of turning from the sublime to the trivial, I’d like to explore the concept of noli me tángere within young adult literature. Recently I have had a number of young adult manuscripts to appraise. Several of them are romances based on similar ideas to series like Twilight or The Fallen.

Some of the authors have taken exception to my remark that a romance novel has to end with a marriage. It can end with the removal of the final impediment to marriage and its promise in the near future but basically the star-crossed lovers must be together.

Twilight, so these writers point out, is a romance that takes three books to achieve that end. Now this is where I take exception: Twilight is not a romance, it is part of a genre I class as ‘menarche fantasy’. Its target is young teenage girls and, while it has romance elements as all menarche fantasies do, its plot is driven by a conflict which can be characterised by noli me tángere.

‘Do not touch me, do not come near me… even though I really really want you to.’

The conflict appeals to a significant section of the young teenage girl population because they are at an age when they are starting to be seriously interested in boys but they are not yet sure about the boundaries they want to install. They want to touch and be touched while they simultaneously do not want to touch or be touched.

They want an ideal boy who is in some sense godlike in integrity, passionate but master of his passions, both untouchable and touchable. In the end, he’s got to be human in his desires but it’s quite in order to take three books to break down his defences. It’s a different genre entirely to romance, with different canons and different rules. To write it as if it is primarily romance is to miss the mark in every way and, instead of creating a deeply satisfying story, it will just be a mix-up that doesn’t quite work.

I first came across menarche fantasy many years ago in Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.

I looked at the concept carefully, tried to understand it and used its basic ideas as a model for the romance between Tamarlane and Thuric in Many-Coloured Realm. There the noli me tángere conflict revolves around an unbreakable vow. But there are many other reasons for such a conflict: vampire, fallen angel, monk, to name just a few.

Whatever it is, however, it must be intrinsic and integral to the character, not external. Otherwise, it simply fails to achieve the satisfying resolution the readers want.


  1. Hi Annie,
    I found this a very thought-provoking post, both as an author who likes romance but have never been sure whether mine should be classified as such, and the mother of a pre-teen girl who is interested in stories similar to those you mentioned.
    I’m glad to be able to post a comment too, as when I first came across your blog, I wasn’t able to.
    God Bless,

    • Hi Paula

      I have always thought that your Adelaide Hills series is a blend of family saga and romance. Even though they are in some sense cross-overs from one genre to another, the thread of romance is exceptionally strong in each of them and the endings were always eminently satisfying because they tied the romance element off neatly.

      I think that in each sequel (if I may term it that – perhaps they’re more like spin-offs) you’ve made the wise decision not to continue with the same central characters but to change your focus to other characters.


  2. I’d have to agree with that for Paula. I really enjoyed your books, and having a ‘resolution’, in a sense has been good, but always leaving open the promise of more things to come. That ‘open-endedness’, in one sense, tends to be a characteristic of many good stories and, ultimately, if you have a connection with God, a characteristic of life itself. Ultimately we are all going to close this part of the story, and move on to the next bit. So, yes, life in itself is an open-ended romance, if you wish to see it that way.

  3. Thanks Annie and James,
    I appreciate your clear ways of expressing this. I’d agree that tying up a story while leaving a certain open-endedness to keep us wondering about the future is what I’ve always liked in a story. I’ve noticed that movie-makers often use this as a ploy so they can choose to either make a sequel or not, depending on box office numbers of the originals, I suppose. I like James’ thought that life is an open-ended romance.

    • The open-ended romance is a wonderful perspective on life. At one point in my life, I actually thought to myself, ‘I’m trapped in a fairytale and I want to get out…’

      My life had taken some very odd turns that seemed more like fiction than reality. A decade on, the more I learn about the mythic aspect of names and how they affect each of us, the more I am convinced that life is a fairytale – – but whether or not we get the fairytale ending is up to the choices we make along the way.

      Of course, most of the literature of today suggests that those of us to write romance, fairytales and hope suffer from an idealistic delusion. But I wonder: does it take more courage to hope or to despair?

  4. John Cleese, in the movie, ‘Clockwise’, plays a thoroughly organised Headmaster who through a series of unfortunate events is totally unable to make his incredibly important appointment with a school board. His comment as he struggled up a hill, clad in a monks costume, (his earlier clothes destroyed), was ‘It’s not the despair that I can’t handle, it’s the hope I can’t stand’. I readily admit that for a long time I strongly identified with that. I think now that I am coming to see life more from a point of view that God really is picking me up and caring for me, ‘in the midst of my anxieties your comfort delights my soul’.

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