We Smell a Rat

Mickey Mouse's origins questioned

The Lord, it is reliably reported, moves in mysterious ways, so perhaps the faithful won't be surprised to learn that at the end of the yearlong celebrations marking the centenary of Mickey Mouse's creator, a discovery in a small village church has inspired a claim that Mickey was actually created 700 years before Walt Disney put pen to paper. But for the rest of us, it is a little surprising.

A restorer working on a 14th century fresco in a church in the southern Austrian village of Malta has uncovered a figure in the painting that bears an eerie resemblance to OC's most famous rodent. The fresco depicts animals honoring St. Christopher, and prayerfully kneeling among the devout fauna is a very familiar looking character with an upturned nose and large, round ears.

"This fresco proves that Mickey Mouse is a true Austrian and was not born in Hollywood," Siggi Neuschitzer, head of Malta's tourism office, told the Austrian press.

Sensing a great opportunity, Siggi talks about bringing in the lawyers. "The similarity is so astounding that Disney could lose its worldwide copyright," he reportedly said.

The mayor of Malta's reaction is more measured. All he hopes is that the figure in the fresco will help boost tourism. Presumably, he understands something that Siggi doesn't: inside the walls of a church, fear of God is all you need, but outside, it's smart to also fear the Disney legal department.

With the possible exception of the overcaffeinated folks at Coca-Cola, no corporation is more fierce when it comes to punishing even the most innocent uses of its copyrighted treasures than Disney. The fact that the offending object is an irreplaceable piece of art in a house of God is likely to make as little difference to Disney's lawyers as it would have to a Viking raiding party.

For the record, when contacted by the English newspaper The Daily Telegraph for its reaction to the discovery of the medieval Mickey, Disney had no comment.

But not everybody sees the world's most lovable vermin in the fresco. Edward Mahlknecht, the art historian in charge of the restoration, thinks it's either "a beaver or weasel." To judge by medieval animal lore, a weasel is the most likely candidate—but one of the Minnie, rather than Mickey, variety. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that weasels gave birth through their ears, so a weasel pregnant with many little weasels would have ears in that distinctly Disney shape.

What makes the story of the sudden appearance of Mickey Mouse/Minnie Weasel in an Austrian church even stranger is that this isn't the first time during the centenary that Europe has advanced a claim on one of the Disney company's most important icons. On the eve of Walt's 100th birthday, as Anaheim was poised to exhibit carefully choreographed happiness, several European newspapers ran stories on a 60-year-old rumor that Walt Disney wasn't the pure product of the Midwest he appeared to be, but was actually the product of a secret love affair between a minor Spanish nobleman and his washer woman. According to the rumors, the woman and her newborn son left their little Spanish town and immigrated to Chicago, where the infant Walt was secretly adopted by the Disneys.

Of all the people who have written about Disney's life, only two—Marc Eliot and Christopher Jones—seem to believe this version of events, but that was good enough for the European papers. After all, Walt the bastard (in the genealogical sense) of a charismatic Spanish nobleman made for better copy than Walt the son of Elias Disney, a bastard (in the pejorative sense) who regularly beat his son.

The faithful for whom that fresco was painted in the 14th century would have seen the hand of God in the symmetry of the centenary beginning and ending with these European claims and puzzled over the message the Lord was trying send. Why would He want us to think "bastard" when we hear the name Disney, or associate Mickey-shaped ears with pregnant weasels, so every time we see the Disney company's most familiar trademark, we'd think "a bunch of little weasels"? It's a mystery.

 
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