So far when I’ve discussed books I’ve enjoyed reading, those mentioned have had a strong romance plot. Yet, not everything that has a place on my keeper shelf is necessarily a romance. One book that has stayed with me since childhood is Taash and the Jesters by Ellen Kindt McKenzie. First published in 1968, it was an ALA (American Library Association) Notable Book for that year. It is set in a fantasy magical world of coaches, music and witches. I seemed to me to be flavored with a Central European setting, although the place of the story is completely fictional.
Taash, our hero is a boy of about 12, who through being falsely accused of breaking the village baker’s glass window, ends up in the care of an old witch. Although he is assured she only uses her magic for good, Taash is cautious. The jester Kashka pops in and out of the cottage throughout the following months, overseeing Taash’s education and teaching him jester tricks of playing the flute and how to stand on his head.
It’s all very peaceful and nurturing, but the fact that Taash doesn’t know who he is bothers him greatly. Although he becomes comfortable living with the old witch in her cozy cottage, there are enough reminders of magic that he remembers to be wary.
Taash should be wary. There are big doings afoot within the kingdom. He inadvertently disrupts a plot by evil witches to enchant the baby Crown Prince. Now he is being chased across the kingdom by magic with a baby in tow.
It all sounds like pretty standard fantasy stuff. What makes the story so different is how Taash combats the attempts to enchant him by using mathematics. The good witch has taught him: “If ever an evil presents itself to you and you feel you must be a part of it, start here with your one times one and go on through with your twelve times twelve. You will find that by the time you have finished, the evil will have passed and you will be quite safe. There is this good in numbers that few know of. I shall tell you of others by and by.”
She never does tell of any other goodness in numbers throughout the rest of the story, but Taash remembers her advice and uses his multiplication tables to ward off the evil magic. (As a Catholic, I know prayers do the same thing.) The scenes in the book where Taash succeeds in standing up to the evil and teaching the technique to his jester friend have stayed with me for years.
When our children were growing up, my husband encouraged them to know their multiplication tables by heart. They might not always have a calculator handy, and at times, they might need to have their minds focused on something other than an evil temptation. After all, how many times have you told yourself I won’t think about that/him/her any more? Mathematics trains your mind. I learned that in a children’s fantasy book.