A hooded friar tugs on a bellpull in an alcove of heavy gray stone. Gloomy light comes in through the window. It’s raining outside and the echoing bell blends with a mournful song played on a church organ… by a tiny little mouse. Who’s pushing the pedals down below? Who cares. Why is there an organ in a 12th century church? Not important. This mouse is wringing out every possible ounce of soul and communal grief from this instrument. 

“Friar Tuck?” The mouse looks over his shoulder while continuing to play and lets out a sad sigh. “I don’t think anyone is coming.” 

The animals of Nottingham have been in a tough situation throughout the film, but now things are truly dire. After Robin Hood successfully won an archery contest while on tiny little stick stilts and dressed as a stork, Prince John tripled the taxes and imprisoned the townspeople who were unable to pay. The jail is full but the church, and the collections box for the poor, are empty. Cue the mournful organ. Cue the rain. Enter the church mice.

Friar Tuck of course is a mainstay in the retellings of Robin Hood. The righteous anger of the full-bellied, mead-positive, kindly-yet-fiery priest gives Robin’s thieving operation a religious validity. Prince John ruled about 340 years before Henry VII became head of the Church of England, so Robin was not technically acting against the Church as would have been the case had he rigged up an elaborate pulley system through the Prince’s bedroom window to steal sacks of gold coins while the Prince’s snake advisor slept in a baby crib at the foot of the bed 400 years later.

But even then the church’s authority was closely tied to the monarchy’s, so it’s likely that most of the institutional powers of the Church would have taken Prince John’s side in the conflict. Friar Tuck, servant of the people and servant of God, presents a righteous path for these cute lil animals to defy their divinely sponsored king. We’re used to him being a part of the tale.*

But Wolfgang Reitherman (the film’s director and producer and possessor of a great name) chose to include a few more ecclesiastical figures: the darling church mice couple.

When I rewatched Disney’s Robin Hood recently, I thought that Mr. Church Mouse was an Anglican rector and I was about to write a loving homage to the ecumenism (albeit anachronistic) of the movie. But thanks to the hardworking Disney adults over at the Disney Wiki, I now know that Mr. Church Mouse is in fact a sexton. (I also learned that his official likes are: “playing the organ” and his dislikes are: “His parishioners, Friar Tuck getting thrown in the dungeon; taxation.” Fair enough.)

In medieval Catholic churches, the sexton was the person in charge of maintaining the church building, sometimes the vestments, and the graveyard. They were often a layperson (hence the existence of a Mrs. Sexton Mouse, billed as “Little Sister”). 

In this version of Nottingham they are, appropriately, church mice. And while their neighbors are all poor/hungry as a church mouse, the smallest of the creatures give the largest gift (literally, if you measure proportionally—the coin Little Sister pulls out from underneath the mattress of their shoe bed is bigger than her head). And I think that’s beautiful.

Everything about these scene-stealers is endearing to me. The soulful organ playing. Their dusty, warm voices. Little Sister’s huff of anger against “that tyrant, Prince John” while sweeping her wee doormat. The meek generosity of giving away their last farthing. 

I want to wrap them up in the softest, warmest blanket; maybe give them some soup in a thimble. The fine folks at the Disney Wiki also taught me that Sexton Mouse is voiced by John Fielder, who is the original voice of Piglet.** This goes a long way towards explaining why I feel such tenderness towards him. And his wife is voiced by Barbara Luddy who also voiced Lady from Lady and the Tramp and Kanga in Winnie the Pooh. Elite! Lovable! (By the way, Little Sister’s official likes are: “Robin Hood and Maid Marian’s love” and her dislikes are: “Prince John’s ways and Friar Tuck in danger.” Can’t argue with that.)

I love this film. I love these critters. May we all lead lives dedicated to maintaining something beautiful and giving selflessly towards our neighbors in need. And, if we play the organ, may we do so soulfully.

 

*While I was writing this I realized I had no idea what kind of animal Friar Tuck was supposed to be. The Disney Wiki describes him as “an obese and corpulent salmon anthropomorphic badger,” which feels unacceptable—but there we are.

**In case we’ve not discovered enough fun facts on this journey: John Fielder was also the voice of Rudy in The Emperor’s New Groove—the guy who threw off the Emperor’s groove and got chucked out a window.

2 Comments

  1. Anna

    John Fielder for president!!!

    Reply
  2. Christina Ribbens

    TYPO! I know it was Henry VIII, not VII, I promise

    Reply

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