A Kestrel for a Knave

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A Kestrel for a Knave
A Kestrel for a Knave.jpg
AuthorBarry Hines
Publication date

A Kestrel for a Knave is a novel by English author Barry Hines, published in 1968. It is set in a mining area (only ever referred to as "the City") and tells of Billy Casper, a young working class boy troubled at home and at school, who only finds solace when he finds and trains a kestrel whom he names "Kes".[1]

The book was made into a film Kes and is often used in Key Stage 4 assessment in the United Kingdom, as part of GCSE English courses. The book is so named because of a poem found in the Book of Saint Albans.[2] In medieval England, the only bird a knave was legally allowed to keep was a kestrel.


In the opening pages of the book, we see Billy and his half-brother Jud sleeping in the same bed in a troubled household. Billy tries to encourage Jud to get up to go to work, but Jud only responds by punching him. Soon afterward Billy attempts to leave for his paper round, only to discover that Jud has stolen his bicycle. As a result, Billy is late and has to deliver the newspapers on foot.

There is a flashback to time some months ago when Billy returns home to find a man whom he does not recognize leaving his house. He asks his mum and finds out that this person is Reg, this is the man she had come home with the night before. It becomes obvious to the reader that Billy's dad is absent. Mum then tells him to go to the shop to get some cigarettes. But instead, he steals a book from the local bookshop. He returns home to read it. Jud comes back drunk from a night out. Still, in the flashback, the next scene takes place at a farm. Billy sees a kestrel's nest and approaches it. Billy is then approached by the farmer and his daughter. At first, the farmer tells Billy to "bugger off" but when he realizes that Billy was looking for a kestrel, he soon takes an interest. The flashback ends.

Later on in the day, Billy is at school, where Mr Crossley is taking the register. After the name Fisher, Billy shouts out 'German Bight', inadvertently causing the teacher to make a mistake. The class then proceeds to the hall for an assembly run by the strict head teacher, Mr Gryce. During the Lord's Prayer, Billy starts to daydream, and after the prayer has finished, Billy remains standing after the rest of the people in the hall have sat down. Billy is told to report to Gryce's room after assembly. Billy goes to Gryce and gets caned. He then goes to a class with Mr Farthing, who is discussing 'Fact and Fiction'. One of the pupils, Anderson, tells a story about tadpoles. Then Billy is told to tell a story, and tells a story about his kestrel. Mr Farthing takes an interest. The class then has to write a tall story, and Billy writes about a day when his father comes back home and Jud leaves to join the army. After the lesson, Billy gets into a fight with a boy called MacDowall, which is eventually broken up and warned by Mr. Farthing.

After the break, Billy goes to physical education (PE) with Mr. Sugden. Billy doesn't have PE kit because his mother refuses to pay for it, so he is forced to wear clothes that do not fit for him instead. He goes onto the football pitch and is told to play in goal. After a very long lesson, which involves Billy performing acrobatics on the goalpost, the class goes back inside and each has a shower. After Billy intentionally lets in the winning goal to end the lesson, he is humiliated by Mr. Sugden who forces him to take a cold shower. After this, Billy goes straight home to feed Kes. He takes her out and flies her, and is approached by Mr. Farthing, who is apparently impressed by Billy's skill. Mr. Farthing then leaves, and Billy goes out to place Jud's bet. However, he finds out that the horse that Jud intends to bet on is unlikely to win, and instead uses Jud's money to buy a portion of fish and chips, and some meat for his kestrel.

Billy returns to school, and whilst sitting in a maths lesson sees Jud walking towards the school. The lesson finishes, and Billy leaves hurriedly. He tries to hide from Jud and falls asleep before he bumps into Gryce, who reminds him that he is supposed to be in a Youth Employment Meeting. Billy goes along to his Youth Employment Meeting, and the Youth Employment Officer finds it very difficult to recommend anything, as Billy claims that he has no hobbies. After the Youth Employment Meeting, Billy goes straight home and finds that Kes has disappeared. He frantically searches for her and returns home. Jud is there, and he tells Billy that the horse he was supposed to place a bet on won and that he has killed Kes. Billy then calls Jud a "fuckin' bastard" and has a fight with him. His mother criticizes Billy's language, and Billy runs away. Another flashback takes place in which Billy visits the cinema with his father. When they return home, Billy's father finds that his wife has been having an affair with Billy's 'Uncle Mick'. Billy's father punches Mick and leaves the house. After the flashback has ended, Billy returns home, buries the kestrel and goes to bed.

The story is set in only one day, apart from the flashback passages. However, the film version, directed by Kenneth Loach from Barry Hines' screenplay, dispenses with the flashbacks and portrays the events in a linear fashion.


  1. ^ Barry Hines (1969). A Kestrel for a Knave. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-002952-4.
  2. ^ "An Eagle for an Emperor, a Gyrfalcon for a King; a Peregrine for a Prince, and a Saker for a Knight; a Merlin for a lady, a Goshawk for a Yeoman, a Sparrowhawk for a Priest, and a Kestrel for a Knave" – Boke of St Albans 1486

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