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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DM Cornish

The lightning-wielding fulgar, Europe—the Branden Rose and Duchess-in-waiting of Naimes—threw caution to the winds at the end of Book 2, Lamplighter, to rescue Rossamünd from the hands of the black habilist, Grotius Swill.

Although Rossamünd was accused of being a monster—even his name gave away his origin as a rossamünderling, a manikin, a creature born of mud from the dark fens who has all the appearance of a human child—Europe has taken him into her service as her personal factotum. Europe is a terrifying teratologist—a monster-hunter—so it is with considerable anxiety Rossamünd awaits the results of a cruorpunxis, a monster-blood tattoo, stamped on the arm of Fransitart, his old master from the foundlingery.

Will the mark come up after a fortnight? What will it reveal? Is he man or monster?

While waiting back in the city of Brandenbrass, Rossamünd comes to the attention of Pater Maupin, the owner of a gambling den and fighting pit where dogs and monsters duel to the death. Pitying the more kindly-natured creatures trapped there, Rossamünd creates a diversion that helps them escape. Spotted, he is pursued and almost killed; he is saved only by the intervention of the Lapinduce, the Duke of Rabbits, an eons-old monster who lives in a quiet wood in the very heart of the depraved city.

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In The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien, a tragic episode in the history of Middle Earth is mentioned. A group of elves, forced into exile and betrayed by their kin, find that their only option for survival is to cross the Helcaraxë—the Grinding Ice. This broken, shifting ice-pack shrouded in clinging mists which were impenetrable to starlight formed the perilous bridge between two land-masses.

From the moment I read this scene, the idea fixed itself in my mind that this part of the story was not really fiction—that once upon a time, this really had happened and that this episode came more from deep ancestral memory than the wilder corners of Tolkien’s imagination.

But then—who were those elves? Where was the Grinding Ice? When had it taken place?

From time to time, I get these little pokes at the back of my brain when I’m reading. A tiny whisper that says to me: real, not fiction. I used to dismiss these thoughts. I would ignore the recurring idea that the enchanted winter of CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe really did take place, that the bridge of birds in Chinese folklore was the same as the necklace Brisingamen from Norse mythology and that they were both a stairway of ‘stars’ that circled the Earth as ice-rings now surround Saturn.

Because I have an interest in names and have long noted a connection between a writer’s name and characters (sure there’s Lewis, from the Welsh for lion, but there’s also George Lucas and Luke Skywalker; Tolkien and Tóki, a name which seems to be cognate with Earendel, Tolkien’s self-admitted source of inspiration; Catherine Fisher’s fisher-king in Corbenic; and most incredibly of all, Toni Morrison’s repeated use of names unique to the Morrisons of the Hebrides when she is Afro-American and Morrison is her ex-husband’s name), I tend to collect obscure fragments of knowledge to do with names and myths.

After a while, the accumulated weight of evidence all pointing in the same direction within fiction—and fantasy in particular—the names used in them for both characters and places, the storylines, the peculiar similarity of so many independent fantasies was overwhelming. And all indicated the mid-sixth century. During my investigations, I was extraordinarily fortunate: I made two errors that balanced each other out.  However, I’d also asked so many questions of friends, acquaintances and relatives for so many years that by the time I worked out an exact date, they knew to ring me straight away when Catastrophe was aired. It was a television programme and, as my sister said when she rang me about it, it quoted just about every piece of literature I’d been asking questions about over the previous decade. Incredibly, it mentioned the exact date I’d calculated from evidence within certain fantasies.

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With My Knife


Andrew Lansdown


The day before his birthday, Colyn finds a knife in a potato patch. The blade is black and the handle has a design of a circle with a tapering triangle inside.  His dad remembers losing it when he was a boy. But it looks as if it has been regularly polished. And the cutting edge—well, there’s something mysterious about it. Why do potatoes turn to stone as Colyn finishes peeling them? And did the piece of wood he whittled really bark when he threw his failed carving of a dog into the fire?

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How Sweet the Sound


Meredith Resce

Golden Grain Publishing

Parable, fantasy, romance, allegory: How Sweet the Sound defies categorisation into any tidy or specific box. It is light without being frothy, tender without being syrupy, otherworldly without being unnatural, symbolic without being incomprehensible. Its footprints touch the ground nimbly in a number of genres without planting themselves firmly in any of them.

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David H. Webb

Anomalos Publishing House

This is a ‘boy-book’.

David Webb makes no apology for it, merely pointing out in the preface the enormous influence of Jane Austen’s Emma on his choice of subject matter. As a teenager in his last year at an all-boys school he had been compelled to make a study of a spoilt heiress who spends four hundred and sixty pages trying—unsuccessfully—to marry off a young friend. Fortunately, no lasting trauma seems to have been resulted.

However, there are moments when I wondered what the book might have been like, had things been otherwise.

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DM Cornish

Around the age of fifteen or sixteen, when a boy has read sufficient science fiction or fantasy to aspire to create his own literary cosmos, he begins a monster story.

Why boys choose a variation on the name ‘Jabberwock’ for the monster and why the creature’s nature should be ambiguous rather than out-and-out evil is a question I’ve never resolved.*

An archetype is obviously involved. However, this does not explain why, of the seven basic plots identified by Christopher Booker, the choice consistently falls on ‘overcoming the monster.’ Nor why the name remains constant.

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Julia Caroline Gollasch
VMI Publishers

Unlike many people I know, I consider allegory and fantasy to be different—cousins but not twins. I love a good fantasy but I cordially dislike allegory. So, consider this fair warning!

I don’t understand why some people like The Pilgrim’s Progress so passionately. It’s too serious, too plainly didactic. It’s like an undressed parable. It’s been stripped of the cloak of mystery that a parable wraps around itself, it’s been shorn of subtlety and generally misses both humour and irony. Perhaps that’s an unfair assessment. But that’s the way it comes across to me.

Fantasy can also be very earnest in tone but in general, it has the shifting light and shadow of a fairytale. The kindly woman by the wayside may turn out to be a witch or a warrior. In allegory, such uncertainty is rare. One thing you can be sure of: both Faithful and Giant Despair will live up to their names.

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Scott Monk
Random House Australia

‘A mystery is a dull question if there’s not plenty of confusion first.’

A random act of kindness propels Michael, a considerate country boy, into an otherworldly adventure. Tormented at his new city school by the vicious Thornleigh sisters and caught in the middle at home between his siblings, Michael’s life undergoes a strange metamorphosis when he gives a dollar to a homeless man.

He meets the man again in a curious old shop while looking for a fancy dress costume and, realising the man is the proprietor, begins to suspect that all is not as it seems. Quite an accurate assessment as it turns out when he is chased, along with his brother and sister, from the party they’re attending. As they escape the Thornleighs and other assorted bullies, they discover the Knock-Knock Door—a gorgeously-ornamented gateway that opens only when given the answers to knock-knock jokes and obscure riddles.

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