The Lesson Key Bird Paintings




I’m discovering these having completed the second major set of revisions/edits on the site, in September of 2019. I’ll do what I can to plug in links, but in case you’re finding this, thinking, “Why didn’t he mention this over in xyz?”, it’s because this site has been the work of an age, and remembering where everything is in it is like remembering the words to every Tom Waits song, and every cultural reference made within them (I’m speaking from experience here), well enough to rearrange them into 200+ original songs.

I have to admit a certain blinding enthusiasm for these, given that there’s probably no more significant art in the entire film–these are how we come to discover Danny’s lessons and escapes. I mean, the escape key is just anonymous stickers of which we’ll probably never identify the maker. These have long occupied a kind of mocking peanut gallery in my mind the past year. ‘Til now I haven’t known if anything in 237 (past the Colville at the entry) could be ID’d. So I had it in mind that maybe these were all bought at the same 1978/79 thrift store, and then burned after production, never to be named (cuz Kubrick’s a cruel mistress like that). Discovering not only that 237 can be mastered, but that the mastering possesses its own trove of logics is quite a thrill for me. And while I expect the others (once/if gotten) will reveal some cool shit…this is the muddafuddin lesson key! This is the art that should tell us what Kubrick thought was just sooooo important he had to bury it in the most complicated film ever made. Hold on to your butts.

I suppose we should start with the “artist” John Gould. Those quotation marks are a bit too cheeky by half, but I thought it was worth emphasizing how Gould’s apparent gifts were in speedily and accurately sketching the birds so that others would later do the finer portraits. To date, there’s no other artist buried in the film who had other artists make the art for them, and that made me think of Kubrick as director. Like, I think a big takeaway for people internalizing my findings generally will be to say, wow, Kubrick was such a genius he either managed to swear 200 people to secrecy, or he somehow pulled off all this complexity on his own. But he doesn’t play Jack Torrance. He doesn’t hold the steadicam when Danny’s racing around the maze. He doesn’t sit and coach Danny Lloyd on memorizing his lines. He doesn’t schedule all the helping hands to come and move all the rugs around between shots. If Kubrick is the dominant artist on any one of his films (and I think you’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise), it’s nevertheless the effort of hundreds, the artistry of hundreds.

What’s really cool (and equally tragic) is that Gould’s main artistic support for the first decade of his professional life was his similarly ardent and talented wife, Elizabeth Coxen, whose work doesn’t seem to be reproduced here. Coxen died in 1841 (shortly after, or during(?), the birth of their eighth child), at the age of 37, but her work, in conjunction with her husband’s, lived on, helping create the lead I’m burying here, which is Charles Darwin’s Zoology of the Voyage of the HMS Beagle, the first of the 20 years of studies Darwin released between starting his Beagle voyages, and publishing On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. It was literally the Goulds’ bird art that helped inspire the invention of the theory of evolution! In fact, it was exactly because of Darwin’s confusion about blackbirds and finches (birds 2 and 3) that lead to Gould’s involvement. That said, it seems pointed that Coxen’s work would be omitted in the film. She wouldn’t have been the only female artist in the film by a long shot, and the lesson-escape Keys are good things, ultimately, for Danny. If, for instance, the image correlating to Wendy showing Danny the maze (the Common Bullfinch), had been hers, that would’ve made a nice nod to Wendy’s role in Danny’s salvation. But perhaps Kubrick didn’t want to conflate her existence with the nature of 237. And perhaps that didn’t even factor in his thinking. After all: the bullfinch correlates with the labyrinth? Bull. Minotaur. This section is gonna write itself.

But, for all the writing I’ve done about how 237 represents how we must risk harm to ourselves to advance civilization, for the way we have to leave home to return to it, I really don’t want to jump past the fact that Kubrick’s combining that with the theory of evolution. I’ve spent so much of this project coming to terms with what we might call Kubrick’s grey agnosticism, only to find this at the heart of everything. Is this what we gain by risking everything? Is evolution what Danny’s self-rescue is made from? He’s certainly a poster boy for adaptation.

And before that sounds like a total endorsement of evolution (which it almost certainly is), there’s this Gould business. Gould derives from Gold. So, with four Goulds against the two (likely not-Gould-based) fox paintings, the 237 bedroom becomes something of a “Gould Room”. I feel like that darkens the connotation, at least slightly.

And speaking of connotation, let’s look at these birdies.


First up, and most visible to the audience: the fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). So, my guess, from a preliminary, fleet-footed shallow dive into the four bird species, is that they would each touch on one of the film’s major buried themes. If that turned out to be true, I wondered if we would glean something about the way these birds, and their subtexts, paired with the process of Danny’s lessons and escapes (the escapes pair somewhat with Wendy’s four horsemen portals, which could be another way of interpreting the data).

So, the two other things that come up in a Wiki search for fieldfare are both connected to the second world war: one a fairly insignificant airstrip in England, the other the name of a slightly more significant cabin in Norway where some saboteurs would carry out sabotage on German supply lines. So that seems like our war reference. Part of Danny’s lesson Key is about understanding WWII.

The fieldfare itself is interesting for how its call is considered similar to that of the blackbird (Turdus merula–another thrush), which happens to be the third bird in our line-up. If we look at these birds as pairing with the Beatles on the Sgt. Pepper cover (as I’ve already done here), the fieldfare is George and the blackbird is Ringo. Wikipedia describes the song it sings as “feeble”, likening it to the blackbird’s. This could be a way of suggesting the minimal role these two played, vocally, in the band.

As for the lessons, the fieldfare being the war bird is interesting since Danny’s first lesson takes him past the painting of the Cooper’s Hawk, otherwise known as a “chickenhawk”, which is also a word for someone who purports great support for war as an activity, but who avoids military service themselves. Danny turns left, away from that painting. As for the escapes, the fieldfare would pair with Danny’s final escape from the labyrinth, which perhaps says something about Danny’s role in Jack’s downfall. I’ve never been a fan of the notion that Danny is “consciously” murdering Jack, but we also have the paradox ‘if you seek peace, prepare for war’. Danny’s self-defence technique does ensnare Jack. His hands aren’t the squeakiest of cleans. So perhaps this is saying, while Danny wasn’t exactly a marauding warrior, he wasn’t a chickenhawk either. He sought peace. He prepared for war.

As for how Wendy’s four horsemen portals affect that: Danny’s last escape is closest to Wendy’s Death vision (the bloodfall). So while that’s not as cute as being closer to her War vision, the War hall (Grady) and the Death hall (bloodfall), are like mirror-twins of each other, and the Blackbird lesson leads to the escape that follows War. And while the blackbird isn’t as associated with death as its corvid brethren, it was still considered a bird of destruction in Greek myth, with a tie to the pomegranate (known as the “fruit of the dead“). So there’s enough war and death to go around between these thrushes.

As for this bird would relate to Bill Watson (through George Harrison), Watson is seen lapping the lounge during the tour, and passing the labyrinth entrance. That’s a weak connection, perhaps. But he was there.


When I still hadn’t ID’d this, I mistook the Bullfinch for a woodpecker, imagining that would connect to Woody Woodpecker, which Kubrick hoped would be the cartoon playing behind Danny’s mealtimes. If references to that endure on the site, please forgive.

So. Bullfinch. Do I need to elaborate?

I suppose pointing out the obvious is inevitable, because this part of the lesson Key refers to the time when Wendy showed Danny the labyrinth, and the part of the escape key where Danny first enters the labyrinth.

It’s said to have a “mournful” call. Would you describe John Lennon as such? I don’t know if I would. Though, if we’re comparing John and Paul, John’s probably the less bombastically enthusiastic. The more interesting Beatles connection would be the bullfinch’s nickname: monk. A monk being the sort of person who lives in an abbey, and a word deriving from the ancient Greek monakhós “single, solitary”. The minotaur is a bit of a solitary being, and John was the first to finally break up the band (if not the first to leave the band). It’s weird to think of Lennon as either minotaur or Theseus, but Ullman (Lennon’s tour counterpart) is the one who possesses the most knowledge of the hedge maze during the tour. And bullfinches are known to want to feed near tall hedges (they like to live in hedges four metres high–Ullman says the hedge maze walls are “13 feet high”; that’s four metres almost exactly). That last link also tells us how for centuries parishes used to pay a bounty for every bullfinch killed; seems ironic, given their nicknamesake (monk), which more likely comes from their solitary nature as birds. Speaks to a certain…self-annihilation.

That last detail also relates well to the way the respective escape comes right after Wendy’s Conquest portal. The “monks” were conquesting on the hedges of England, and the parishes conquested right back. One last thing on the religious angle: the song that plays over Danny’s first escape is Penderecki’s Kanon. The song over the respective lesson is Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta, which plays over the next lesson as well. These would correlate to John and Ringo. Given how complexly composed that song might be, was this Kubrick’s way of suggesting the genius of those two songsmiths? And speaking of Ringo…


Again, I couldn’t find the credit for what artist helped Gould realize the Blackbird painting, but if it was by chance his late wife, that would gel elegiacally with Wendy’s correlation to Ringo, who the blackbird represents here. Update: no, it’s another Richter. In case I forget to re-edit this section, everything’s Richter but the last one.

Any casual Beatles fan has probably already shouted out to themselves three dozen times what the secret Beatles connection is here: Blackbird is a McCartney track off the 1968 White Album, and just so happens to be track 3 of side 2 (this painting represents the 3rd lesson, and the 2nd escape patterns). Blackbird is interesting for the way McCartney claimed at different times different explanations for the song’s inspiration (one version has it that a bird call in India gave him the idea, and the other says the song’s about toxic race relations in America), and also for the way a classical composer (Bach) informed the composition (the song Because, off Abbey Road, was inspired by Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata played backwards), and that piece, Bourrée in E Minor, is considered a more sombre expression of its musical form than would’ve been expected at the time (I’m just saying, there’s a similarity there to Moonlight Sonata‘s melancholy).

Anyhow, putting aside the scholarly doubt surrounding McCartney’s zeitgeisty claim, if we view the song as a comment on race relations, that certainly speaks to the buried themes of American genocide, and the hotel’s secret desire to kill Hallorann.

And before we move past the Beatles connection, side 2 of the White Album also features the Ringo Starr track, Don’t Pass Me By. In the 3rd lesson, Danny passes room 237 once, only to notice it on the return loop. In the 2nd escape, Danny enters the heart of the maze, where he won’t pass by, but will perform the backwards disco that saves his life. And again, it’s because he thinks Wendy (Ringo) has rolled the pink ball that he enters room 237 (where he might later shine Jack doing his backward walk away from the ghost), and it’s because Wendy showed him the middle of the maze that he knows how to get there, and perhaps it’s from the way she walks him up and down the middle that he gets the idea to walk it backwards. This would be another way of looking at the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta connection: it’s about Danny’s relationship to his parents (it plays again during his big confrontation with zombie Jack). It plays once when Wendy’s being most helpful, once near the room where he’ll think Wendy is (prompting Jack to have his own experience there), and once over Jack’s least helpful non-murderous interaction with his son.

Oh, also, given that this escape follows Wendy’s War portal, Ringo was the first Beatle to try quitting the band. And it’s during her War portal that she encounters Hallorann’s corpse, the fallen blackbird, as it were (perhaps this is another reason for why his corpse vanishes during the Famine portal). Also, Danny’s 3rd lesson having to do with his discovery of the mythic room 237 marks the first time he’s dealing with this room and its number since shining it out of Hallorann’s head. And if we wanna get really nuts, dig this: the blackbird is the 2nd sticker on the door, the 3rd painting on the wall, and the 7th bird out of the total 8 to appear. 2-3-7.

Sorry, I made this image for the next section. Never mind the red circles for now.

Does that mean 237 is the Starr Key? The Richard…Starkey?

Oh, and also, the etymology for Turdus is partly the same as for “starling”. Ringo Starr (or Dick Starkey). Also, the minotaur’s alternate name, Asterion, means “starry”. And Danny is arriving at the spot where he’ll defeat the bullfinch in his life.

As for the bird itself, it’s worth noting that the bird, while socially monogamous, is known to engage in extra-pair paternity. That seems to gel well with Wendy’s relying on Hallorann for his guardianship assistance, and even trying to outsource Danny’s lack of a father onto Danny himself.

Another major subtheme is that of overwintering. Blackbirds overwinter, and that’s basically the entire surface-level plot of The Shining. But Wendy is also a championship level overwinterer, her not insubstantial flaws aside. Danny also receives his 3rd lesson on the afternoon before the hotel’s first major snowfall.

The bird also has a connection to Shakespeare, being referenced by Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Last, and most obscure (it’s blotted out by glare off the far lamp for most of its on-screen life), is Gould’s Kingfisher art, which is the only one co-drawn by William Matthew Hart. This might be significant of the fact that, straight through the wall behind this painting may be the A Woman of Prince William Sound painting, by John Webber. That painting makes a somewhat inadvertent reference to King William IV, and here we have the fourth bird painting being by a William. Going by what Danny trikes past, I would say the 237 bedroom is further down, possibly even behind the elevators, but it’s also true that the spatial nature of the building is always morphing. In any case A Woman of Prince William Sound is the closest artwork to the bird key.

It’s impossible for me not to wonder if this piece was selected due to the “Gould Room” being the “Heart” (like Hart) of both the physical film (this painting appears 86 seconds to the right of the middle of the film, and is the first of the bird paintings to appear, technically)…

…and the heart of the Gould Room itself, and possibly even of every secret trick connected to the bird keys. But to understand that we need to look at everything else there is to say about it.

The easiest thing to say about it is that it’s correlated to Paul McCartney, which means it’s correlated to Jack. I don’t know if the other Beatles would agree that Paul was the “heart” of the band, but he was certainly the most devastated by its disintegration, and is the one still referring to it as a “family”, almost a year ago today, as it happens (oh fun fact: that was just after I started this project!).

The fact that it’s the only of the four pictures that becomes obscured by a shining lamp, speaks to Jack’s activity in this room. He’s about to get hard shined.

There’s also that “king” in “kingfisher”. I’ve wondered many times if Kubrick saw Stephen King writing about himself in Jack, and this might clinch it. The fisher part could speak to Jack’s role in slaughtering the “fishy” Hallorann (this is also the only of the four bird paintings where one of the birds has a fish in its mouth). But did King see himself in Paul? Hard to say.

So, when it comes to how the bird speaks to a subtheme, I’m actually not sure which one to chose from. Actually, no. I’m not sure which one is most dominant (I’ll save my fave for last). The king=kingfisher bit seems to suggest that it’s about all the meta/4th-wall-tapping elements of the film (Jack and Danny playing Jack and Danny, and stuff like that). The genus that this bird’s a part of has one species called the “Shining-blue kingfisher”. Again, this strongly suggests a self-reference, making me wonder if the subtler subthemes of the other three paintings (war, Icarus/minotaur, race relations) are being put secondary to whatever Kubrick sees in the kingfisher. Then again, it could simply be a matter of incidence.

The kingfisher is also unique among the birds in the lesson key for not building traditional nests (the three other pictures all feature nests). Kingfishers stick their eggs in burrows that the parents make along riversides, which means that the young are susceptible to drowning and nests are susceptible to destruction by flooding. Survival rates among offspring are about 1 in 4 as a result of these factors and similar/resulting others (can you tell where this is going yet?). Also (with regard to that last hyperlink), just a note about how the killing of kingfishers had a ritual around it, not unlike the killing of bullfinches. So, the birds connected to Ullman and Jack (Satan and the minotaur) are the ones who people decided to ritualize the slaughter of.

There’s also a part of the bird’s latin name left off the painting: atthis. This was the name of a beauty of Greek myth, also mentioned in the love poetry of Sappho, which could tie to the nude beauty Jack is about to encounter. But the word also leads to the word atthidographer, which is someone who wrote about Athenian history. And our (novel version more than film version) Jack becomes a historian of the Overlook’s modern history.

But back to the bit about floods and drowning. The alcedo name comes in part from a Greek myth about a pair of lovers who in one account would call each other “Zeus” and “Hera” as terms of affection/empowerment. This angered Zeus who caused the man, Ceyx, to drown at sea, and his lover, Alcyon, threw herself into the sea to drown, in her despair at learning of Ceyx’s fate. The gods turned them into kingfishers, or “halcyon birds”, a compassionate rebuke to Zeus’ wrath. In the novel, Wendy refers to Jack as “the American Shakespeare”, though I’m not sure if Jack has quite so kind a reply; point being, there’s folly in overstating your partner’s better nature. This lead to the invention of “halcyon days”, which were said to be the 7 days before and after the shortest day of the year (Dec. 21), when storms never happened. Jack most likely dies on the evening of the 13th, meaning just before the “halcyon days” that would begin on the 14th. But halcyon can also mean “the good old days”, which is one way of looking at the photo Jack finale. He did get to go back, right to the start of the roaring twenties…but he won’t really get to enjoy them.

That might also be the way this painting touches on the general Beatles-ness of The Shining. There’s already numerous references to 1969 in the film, but the Redrum Road factor is just pure nostalgia. So “the good old days” were the days when it felt like the Beatles were eternal, and like the summers of peace and love were undefeatable. And when it felt like no one would ever have to go work for some “officious little prick” like Ullman ever again.

But the association I find most fascinating is to the most unusually-named of its brethren, the Alcedo hercules. All the other kingfisher species have names referring to the state of their blueness, with two exceptions, and the one is the supersized Blyth’s kingfisher (named for its discoverer), also named for a certain creator of pillars (perhaps because Heracles’ original name was Alcides; and/or because Heracles means “pride of Hera”, which would put a coy spin on the Alcyon connection). So, while I’ve shown how this could connect to a few of the film’s major subthemes, it seems most incredible that it would have something to do with the pillars of Hercules.

What’s more, the fourth bird correlates to Danny’s fourth lesson, which is…

…the one with the mystery Jackson painting. But yes, also has a great deal to do with the pillars of Hercules.

And the fourth lesson correlates to the third escape, which is…

…the one that bookends Danny’s defeat of his father. Poet Robert Graves interprets the Alcyon myth as being about the birth of the new sacred king at winter solstice, which means the the old king’s corpse has been delivered “to a sepulchral island” (sort of like Geryon’s island?) by the queen, who is understood to be a moon-goddess. Wendy is seen next to Moon and Cow in the BJ well (right before the whole labyrinth sequence), a painting which vaguely resembles the place where Jack finally lays down and dies. This could be a nod to Wendy’s role in helping Jack die in the labyrinth: by showing Danny the labyrinth, and helping it be the second lesson.

As for Wendy’s four horsemen portals: technically, parts of Danny’s third escape occur after War, Famine and Death, which means that Conquest (the horseman most associated with Wendy) is the only horseman kept separate from this kingfisher business. And remember, when she’s seeing War and Famine, she’s in a room with a painting that references Samson, of the-bible’s-answer-to-Hercules fame. And, as discussed in its section, the Famine portal strikes me as being the most Jack-centric of the horsemen. And these three horsemen speak powerfully to the baby kingfisher’s first few weeks of existence: if you can survive the riverside egg burrow you’re born in, and not get flooded to death, you have only a couple weeks before your parent(s) will fight you out of their territory, because there’s not enough food for that many birds in any given area. And the territory you’re battled out into, might not have enough food to survive on. Three in four newborns die.

I also just want to note that one of Hercules “side-quests” during his twelve labours was to rescue (in some accounts) Prometheus from his endless toil of having his liver pecked out every day under the beating sun. There’s two plays by Aeschylus that refer to Prometheus as Prometheus the Fire-Bringer and Prometheus the Fire Kindler. In ancient Greek these are called Prometheus Pyrphoros and Prometheus Pyrkaeus, both of which smuggle that “Pyr” (“fire”) into Prometheus’ title. Prometheus was also the father of Deucalion who was considered the Noah (of Noah’s Ark fame) to his wife Pyrrha’s Namaah/Emzara (Noah’s wife). Pyrrha means “fiery-coloured” in a seeming reference to her hair, and she’s thought to be a mythological precursor to Little Red Riding Hood (which may be being referenced elsewhere in the film). So, having a pyrrhula pyrrhula bird two jumps back from a Hercules bird could imply that this whole grand design of Danny’s lessons and escapes is something like a Promethean rescue story. But that really makes me wonder about who’s who in that framework, and why? In the play Prometheus Unbound, after Hercules kills the eagle who’s been eating his liver everyday, and freeing him from his chains, Prometheus foresees the success of Hercules’ last two labours of stealing the golden apples and killing Cerberus. Since so much of The Shining seems concerned with Hercules’ tenth labour (the one that comes before those labours), I wonder if Tony’s prophesy of hardship is meant to be a kind of promethean forewarning to Danny about the Herculean challenges ahead.

To cap off our kingfisher bonanza, I just want to draw attention to the fact that I originally thought the black-headed, white-bodied bird on Danny’s door was in connection to what’s turned out to be the kingfisher painting. The scene is shot in such a way that it does seem like it could be a black-headed, white-bodied bird, but it’s not. Which means that that bird (red circle below) could be referencing the bird behind Jack’s head as he flees 237. If so, might all the stickers here eventually reveal to have some connection to the room? Time (and too much effort for me to contemplate) will tell.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is screen-shot-2019-09-22-at-2.39.30-pm.png


Perhaps a very deep dive would reveal Four Horsemen-level connections between each of the four birds with every other, but I just wanted to observe how the George and Ringo birds seem to be fairly similar, both being thrushes (turdus pilaris and turdus merula) with similar calls, and how the John and Paul birds (pyrrhula vulgaris and alcedo ispida) seem to be fairly similar, both being ritualistically slaughtered by humans, and having Greek myth connotations within the film, and having animals in their names that aren’t “bird”. Likewise, the lessons they correspond to have similarities. The George (loop) and Ringo (backtrack) lessons happen in and above the lounge, starting in virtually the same spot, one the level up from the other.

The red arrows show the stairs that connect from the lounge service hall to the 237 hall.

The John and Paul lessons start from the lobby and turn left (or south; John) and right (or north; Paul), away from it. Though the John lesson leads into the labyrinth, while the Paul lesson leads away from the lobby service hall, which has an eye-line to the model labyrinth in the lobby.

And of course, there’s other connections, like the kingfisher (Paul) and the fieldfare (George) being visually similar birds: blue-toned heads and wings over warm-toned bodies. The bullfinch (John) and blackbird (Ringo) lessons both feature Bartók music playing over them. The fieldfare (George) and bullfinch (John) lessons mirror over the lounge fight, which only features the song Polymorphia, while the blackbird (Ringo) and kingfisher (Paul) lessons mirror over the Road Runner Show theme (1966) and Henry Hall’s Home (1933/32?). The blackbird is known for its colour, just as most kingfisher species are named for their blueness (though, to be fair pyrrhula vulgaris comes from the Greek “flame-coloured” and the word can mean “red in colour”). Actually, in that way, the fieldfare is the only one not associated with a colour, just as the kingfisher is the only one not drawn by Henry Constantine Richter. The blackbird is the only art piece not titled after it’s Latin/Greek name. And the pyrrhula vulgaris is more commonly known as the pyrrhula pyrrhula, making it the only bird with a “twin” name.

Perhaps there’s a whole bunch of connections I’m not seeing, and perhaps what I am seeing is incidental. Nevertheless, I thought I should point it out.