The Story of a Cover

I’d been looking for the ideal cover for my latest book, God’s Panoply—The Armour of God and the Kiss of Heaven, for over a year. I’d narrowed my options slowly, wanting to make sure my choice and God’s choice coincided.

Eventually I decided that the soft focus stock photograph of a mounted knight in armour that I’d been looking at for three months was the one. Imagine my horror when the day I got around to buying it (always a good option when trying to persuade my publisher) it had disappeared from the Dreamstime website. Not to worry. I’m sure I’d seen it on istockphoto, though a little more expensive. It was gone from there too!

Wait! There were other stock photo sites where I’d seen the same shot. All gone!

I was in shock. I’d been praying about the perfect cover for a year—and I felt like I’d been robbed. I looked at my secondary choices. None of them were anywhere near as good.

So I had a long anguished chat with God. Not long after, He directed me to a picture that, I have to say, was not my idea of panoply. It was a daffodil—nothing like armour. However the more I looked at pictures of shields and bucklers, swords and banners, the more I felt the Holy Spirit pulling me back to the daffodil. ‘But it doesn’t mean anything!’ I wailed. ‘At least the rose on God’s Poetry symbolises the essence of names. The whole rose-by-any-other-name question raised by Shakespeare as to whether a name has any effect on anyone.’

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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.

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Traditionally the last words of John the beloved disciple were ‘Little children, love one another.’ It seems a likely story because, after all, he says just that so often in his epistles.

However, it’s worth remembering that Jesus gave him and his brother James the nickname Boanerges, usually translated Sons of Thunder, but perhaps more correctly rendered sons of rage.  So the story that he grabbed his clothes and fled the public baths when he realised the Gnostic teacher Cerinthus was in the same building, just in case God’s wrath was about the turn the place to a cinder, is not altogether far-fetched.

The gospel of John was, in the second century, of uncertain status. Helms points out that some Christians believed it had been written by the apostle as an anti-gnostic anti-Cerinthian work while others considered it had been written by Cerinthus himself!

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