A R Lloyd’s saga of Kine is a little known but utterly bewitching trilogy of animal fantasy novels, written very much in the epic, heartwarming and unforgettable tradition of Watership Down and Duncton Wood. The word ‘Kine’ comes from an Old English word for weasel and Lloyd’s books chronicle the life of a wild least weasel named Kine. One of the smallest predators in the world the least weasel is, despite its size, a fierce hunter, capable of killing fully-grown rabbits, as well as larger prey 5-10 times its own weight. As such, Lloyd’s story is not in any way cute or fluffy – the weasel is realistically depicted as a solitary predator, the natural world around him red in tooth and claw. This is perhaps unsurprising given Lloyd’s background growing up in rural Kent with the largely unspoilt English countryside all around him, complete with all its wild creatures. Indeed, the countryside is as much a character in the Kine saga as the eponymous weasel himself. Lloyd depicts a hidden world, where solitary creatures prowl secret paths and hedgerows, and whiskered legions gather for battle. This is the lost realm of the least weasel – enter it at your peril…
The Kine books were written over thirty years ago but even in this short time much of the world that their author depicts so masterfully has sadly disappeared. Woods and hedgerows have been chopped down mercilessly to make way for concrete monstrosities in the form of houses or, even worse, sterile business parks and soulless shopping malls. There is hardly anything left of the English countryside with its unique creatures. The red squirrel (inspiration for Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin), the water vole (inspiration for Ratty, from Wind in the Willows), and even the March Hare and the Dormouse from Alice in Wonderland have all been practically wiped out – each species has suffered catastrophic 90-95% population decreases in just the last 30-40 years. The magnificent Scottish wildcat, known as the ‘Tiger of the Highlands’, is already all but extinct (there are less than 50 left in the wild – in just a couple of years there will be none at all). This is the reason why books like Kine, Wind in the Willows, Tarka the Otter, Watership Down and others are so important, quite apart from their obvious artistic merits. Already, few in Britain are familiar with the woodlands, wild heaths and marshes that play such a pivotal role in these fictional works. I imagine that future generations who read such books will only be able to shake their heads sadly as they try to imagine that anything other than concrete, steel and tarmac ever existed on the fair isle that was once known as Albion.
But I digress. Reading the Kine Saga, at least, is anything but a depressing experience. Lloyd’s ability to evoke the atmospheric detail of the English countryside is supreme. He also creates an unforgettable mythology of a mysterious but never remote animal kingdom. The Kine books are called a saga for a reason – they do, after all, depict the heroic struggles of a larger than life anti-hero. In the first book, Kine’s peaceful world of woodland and marsh is disrupted by a pack of wild mink, savage and seemingly unstoppable. It is left to the brave but tiny hunter Kine to fight back against these ferocious invaders – a battle which is won only at a terrible cost. In the second novel, Witchwood, Kine is pitted against a veritable army of rats, who multiply like the plague. Once again, Kine must battle against seemingly insurmountable odds. He survives – just – only to face his greatest trial in Dragon Pond, the concluding volume in the saga. Something monstrous lurks in the black depths of the Moon Pond and Kine must face it alone. This is in many ways the most memorable and poignant of the Kine books, depicting as it does an ageing hero, coming to terms with his own frailty in his dotage, while at the same time preparing for his final battle.
Lloyd’s books (though sadly now out of print) were an instant bestseller on their release and single-handedly seemed to change for a time the popular image of the weasel from that of the loutish vandals at Toad Hall to one of an enviably athletic anti-hero. Fans of the series were enthralled to hear from its author that the fictional Kine had a real life counterpart – a wild least weasel which once visited his garden! Named Kine by Lloyd, the weasel symbolically appeared at his kitchen window, in fine fettle, on the very day of publication of the first novel in the series back in 1982. I hope that the real life Kine’s descendants still prowl somewhere in that hidden, magical corner of Kent and that the weasel and his other wild comrades do not ever simply get resigned to fiction – or history.