The Heroic Journey 2.0 of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

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There has been a lot of talk around Story Grid lately about the Heroic Journey 2.0.  If you’ve missed out on the conversations, I recommend starting with Shawn’s explanation on the podcast, which you can find here, here, and here, and The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, a Story Grid  Masterwork Analysis Guide, which you can find here.

This time of year is the perfect time to take a look at a heroic journey that is on the minds of many children around the world – that of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, whom children everywhere admire as the lead on the journey to bring them gifts from Santa.  But his nose wasn’t always admired by those who knew him. In fact, Rudolph’s nose caused him much pain in his young life and it was only after he learned not to run from the problems his nose caused that he was able to use it to become the hero we love today.

There are several renditions that tell us the story of Rudolph and his nose. The character Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by Robert Lewis May as the youngest of Santa’s reindeers who uses his nose to light the way for Santa’s sleigh.  The story started out as a booklet in 1939, and ten years later during Christmas of 1949, the classic Christmas song written by Johnny Marks, featuring the most famous reindeer hit number one on the U.S. charts.  In 1964 the story was adapted into a stop-motion animated television special written by Romeo Muller, that is one of the longest running tv specials of all time. 

What makes this classic Christmas story stand the test of time?  Story structure of course! And the classic renditions all have it.  For this article, I’ll look at the classic Christmas song and compare the story structure to that of the 1964 animated story.

The Christmas song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer follows the Five Commandments of storytelling. Let’s see how it breaks down:

  1. Inciting Incident: Rudolph has a red nose!
  2. Progressive Complication turning point:  The turning point follows a series of complications including the other reindeers who laugh at Rudolph and call him names and who refuse to let him play reindeer games.  The turning point happens when Santa needs Rudolph to guide his sleigh during a particular foggy Christmas Eve.
  3. Crisis: The crisis happens “off-stage” as we don’t see Rudolph struggle with it, but it’s there nonetheless.  Should Rudolph refuse to help Santa and the other reindeer after they’ve made his life miserable, at the cost of delivering Christmas presents to boys and girls around the world, or should he forgive them, put aside his hurt and save Christmas for everyone?
  4. Climax: This moment is off-stage as well, but we understand the minute we learn the resolution that Rudolph has chosen to save Christmas.
  5. Resolution: Rudolph is truly a hero and all the reindeer love him for using his special gift to save the day!

Because the song follows the Five Commandments of Storytelling, it includes a full transformation of Rudolph, from the laughing stalk of the reindeer to someone Santa depends on to bring presents to the world, all based on Rudolph’s choice to be the hero of the story.  We listeners are satisfied because we’ve experienced a full character transformation in a catchy little tune! 

As great as the story in the song is, the  animated stop-motion cartoon is able to take the story structure development even further, and because it does so in a way that follows the Global Heroic Journey 2.0, the story experience is much richer.  It is a great example story to use to study the Heroic Journey 2.0 because it explores Rudolph’s efforts not only to survive the Bumble, and thrive in Christmas Town, but also to derive meaning from his existence as the only red-nosed reindeer around.  Let’s take a look at how this story follows the Global Heroic Journey 2.0.

Just like all units of story, the Heroic Journey 2.0 follows the Five Commandments of Storytelling, but there is more to it.  The “more to it” of the Global Heroic Journey 2.0 gives us an idea of what should happen in each part of the Five Commandments.  Again, there isn’t time to go into an in depth explanation of the component parts of the Heroic Journey 2.0 in this blog post (and you’ll want to read or listen to Shawn’s teachings on it anyway!). But we have just enough space to take a look at a story most of us are familiar with and figure out what makes it timeless (my kids are wondering what Rudolph and the other characters are made out of in the television series, but they love the story anyway!). 

Heroic Journey 2.0 of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (Television Special 1969)

Part 1 – The Global Inciting Incident

The Global Inciting Incident requires us to start with a character with a pretty good grasp on a Worldview that is working well for him or her, and then drop in an invisible phere Gorilla that upends that person’s life.  This is the cyclone from The Wizard of Oz, or the letters delivered by Owl Post in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  The protagonist’s Worldview isn’t really capable of deciphering what the invisible phere gorilla means for their life, and they must spend the rest of the story figuring that out (if this sounds like a foriegn language to you, take my advice and read or listen to Shawn’s in depth teachings in the links at the beginning of this post).

In the beginning of Rudolph’s story, he’s got a pretty good grasp on his Worldview.  His shiny nose is bad, but he’s hiding it and as long as it’s hidden, the world is working pretty well for Rudolph. In fact, he has a pretty good setup for life in Christmas Town.  He’s Donner’s son, so that garners the attention of Santa and likely a guaranteed spot on Santa’s sleigh team before he’s even old enough to think of trying out. He’s been noticed by the  doe he likes named Clarice, and she’s told him she thinks he’s cute. He can fly and he’s pretty popular with the other reindeer his age. 

Then, an Unexpected Event kicks off Rudolph’s story.  Rudolph’s fake black nose falls off in front of all the other reindeer his age and in front of Santa.  This is the Global Inciting Incident that propels Rudolph’s story because it upsets his Worldview – he is no longer accepted by the other reindeer, he will never fly Santa’s sleigh and he’s not even allowed around the other deer his own age.  His life won’t be fine as long as he hides his nose because his nose is no longer hidden.  Without this Inciting Incident, we may never get the Rudolph story as we know it, and Christmas may have been cancelled on that fateful snowy day.

The scene where Rudolph’s fake nose falls off also sets up another important part of the Heroic Journey 2.0.  Rudolph develops a response of trying to run from the problems his nose causes him that will keep getting him in trouble until he learns not to run from it anymore.  It will take a complete shattering and restructuring of his Worldview for Rudolph to learn he can’t run from his nose, and good things happen when he accepts that he must face those problems head-on.

Part 2 – The Global Turning Point Progressive Complication

The Global Turning Point Progressive Complication of the Heroic Journey 2.0 happens when the protagonist’s worldview completely shatters.  It’s not just challenged, but it completely breaks down.  The moment comes after a series of progressive complications that the protagonist has experienced when he or she suddenly realizes that nothing they’ve done has effectively dealt with that invisible Phere Gorilla from the Global Inciting Incident.

For Rudolph, this moment happens when he returns to his home in Christmas Town and realizes that his family and Clarice have all gone looking for him, are about to get caught out in a snowstorm and Santa may not be able to fly his sleigh unless Donner comes back.  That is a very low point for Rudolph that comes after he repeatedly tries to run from his nose, first by leaving Christmas Town with Hermey the elf (who is also running from his problem of being a dentist in a town that allows one job – a toy maker), then by abandoning his friends in an attempt to save them from the Bumble and finally by wandering around on his own for so long that those he loves most leave the safety of the town and put themselves in danger.  Rudolph didn’t solve any problems by running from what he perceives as “nose” problems.  Instead, he’s made everything worse.  Rudolph needs a new approach and he needs it now.

Part 3 – The Crisis

The Crisis moment of the Heroic Journey 2.0 happens when the protagonist finally faces the invisible Phere Gorilla giving it the attention it deserves so that the protagonist can make sense of the choices available to him or her to deal with the invisible Phere Gorilla.  As we Story Grid students know, the crisis requires a binary best bad choice or irreconcilable goods choice. Shawn explains that choice in The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, a Story Grid  Masterwork Analysis Guide, as one that boils down to whether we think it is “better to conclude that life is meaningless and thus not care about anything anymore? Or is it better to go on searching for meaning and continue to care, even though there is no guarantee there is any?”

To put it in terms of Rudolph’s crisis question, Rudolph has just returned home from wandering in the woods all alone.  While out there, he’s tried a few times to make friends and he’s been rejected by those friends (with the exception of Yukon Cornelius, Hermey and the Misfit toys) because of his nose.  Now he learns that all of his attempts to avoid embarrassing his family and keep his friends safe have probably put them in danger.  What is the point anymore?  Why keep trying when everything he’s done has failed so far?  

Rudolph has to make a choice – go find his family even though it might not work, his nose might get them all killed and they might reject him again even if he finds them, or keep on taking care of himself and give up the opportunity to be with those he loves, even if it causes him pain, for good?  That’s a best bad choice young Rudolph must make in the face of his shattered Worldview and he must choose whether to try to make something good out of a world that has treated him cruelly, or give up on that world and go out on his own.

Part 4 – The Climax 

In the climax of the Heroic Journey 2.0, the protagonist decides how to answer the Crisis question.  He or she must summon all their strength to move forward in the face of mortal danger.  The Climax is really about examining the new attitude of the protagonist as they move forward having made their best bad choice or irreconcilable goods decision.  It’s about facing that Phere Gorilla intentionally, instead of reacting blindly, unable to metabolize the meaning of it.

In the beginning of his story, Rudolph can’t metabolize the meaning of problems or how to deal with them. He has a bad day, and even though Clarice tries to tell him that he’ll have other days to try to make his dreams come true, he can’t handle the adversity and he runs away.  Again, at the island of misfit toys he makes the same choice.  His friends aren’t concerned about the Bumble finding them because of his nose, and if they are it’s a risk they are willing to take, but Rudolph can’t metabolize the problem of how to deal with his difference, so he runs away again.

In the Climax moment of his heroic journey, he stops running from his problems and faces them head on. Rudolph goes out into the snow storm to find his parents and Clarice.  His new attitude is that he will risk his life to save them, and he’ll deal with his “nose” problems as they come.  That’s a complete reversal from his old approach of running away from all his problems.

However, in the Climax moment of the story Rudolph doesn’t end up the ultimate hero that saves his party from the Bumble.  That honor belongs to Hermey the elf, who pulls out the Bumble’s teeth, and Yukon Cornelius, who knocks out the Bumble so that Hermey can get to work.  But it’s Rudolph’s choice to face his problems head on that allows his family and Clarice to be saved. If Rudolph had not gone looking for them, Hermey and Yukon would not have found Rudolph’s family and they likely would have fallen victim to the Bumble.  

Part 5 – The Resolution

The Global Resolution of the Heroic Journey 2.0 is all about the response from the world around the protagonist to the protagonist’s new way of approaching his or her problems.  

How do the people and creature’s in Rudolph’s world respond to his assertion of his new way of approaching his problems?  They reward him with understanding and even admiration.  Everyone in Christmas Town realizes they were too hard on Rudolph (and on Hermey and even on the misfit toys).  They have a new understanding of his feelings and their impact on them.  And they even develop a realization that his difference is a gift, which ends up saving Christmas.

It’s the resolution that I think makes the television series present such a great message for my children and the real meaning of the Heroic Journey 2.0 that makes it so appealing to audiences today.  That message is that it’s not a specific heroic action that makes Rudolph a hero – he wasn’t really a hero in the traditional sense of the word at the climatic moment of the story.  Hermey and Yukon are the heroes that saved the others.  But he was heroic for learning his lesson that you can’t run from your problems.  The more you try to run from them the bigger they get.  And because he learned his lesson he was available to those in his world when they needed him most – the night they realized his nose could guide Santa so that he didn’t disappoint Children around the world.  A true hero is one who learns to deal with their problems and derive meaning from them so that everyone benefits.  That is what the Heroic Journey 2.0 means to me and why I think it is so powerful.  

So here is a big thank you to Rudolph (and his creators) for entertaining us and giving us all a message worth remembering every Christmas!

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About the Author

Renee Decker is a developmental editor, who got her start in storytelling thrilling her family with renditions of “The Three Little Pigs” and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and has not stopped loving stories since.  Her goal is to help every writer transfer the story in their head to the one they want to tell on paper.  In college, as a teaching assistant in The Writing Center at Transylvania University and then later in law school, Renee realized how much she loves teaching others to develop their own skills.  She found The Story Grid in 2015 and recognized what a great set of tools it provides writers to make their stories the best version of themselves.  Now she helps writers of all levels master those techniques to write their best story yet.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
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