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Literature / Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

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"But do you recall the most famous reindeer of all?"
— "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", 1949 song

Rudolph is, indeed, the most famous of Santa Claus's flying reindeer nowadays. He's a young buck who was born with a striking, luminescent red nose.

The origin of the character dates back to The Great Depression. The Chicago retailer Montgomery Ward would give away coloring books every Christmas, but it was decided that self-publishing their own books would save money. In 1939, Robert L. May was assigned the task of writing a "cheery children's book" for the store's clientele. While looking out his window into the fog that Chicago is well-known for, May got the idea of writing about a reindeer with a glowing red nose. Thus, the story of an ostracized reindeer who gains recognition due to his special nose was born. May initially thought of naming his new character "Rollo" or "Reginald", but in the end he decided on "Rudolph".

May's concept was initially turned down, as it was felt that red noses were too commonly associated with drunkards to make for a charming kids' tale. It was only after illustrator Denver Gillen drew the adorable-looking deer shown above that the idea was warmed up to. The booklet turned out to be a swimming success, selling over two million copies in its first year.

A mass-market edition of May's story was published in 1947, helping it to start becoming well-known internationally. After an Animated Adaptation in 1948 and a hit Gene Autry song in 1949, Rudolph's popularity was cemented. He's only become more and more recognizable over the ensuing decades, thanks in no small part to the stop-motion TV special that has aired every year since its 1964 debut.

In the decades since the booklet's release, Rudolph has become the most iconic of Santa's reindeer, eclipsing the original eight from 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. As a result, he's been referenced in numerous media. A reading of the original story can be viewed here.

May later wrote two follow-up books, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Shines Again note  (published in 1954) and Rudolph's Second Christmas (published in 1992, sixteen years after his death). Rudolph Shines Again focuses on Rudolph feeling unhappy after Santa's other reindeer start getting jealous of his fame and acting unfriendly towards him, which results in his red nose temporarily losing its shine. Rudolph later encounters and helps a group of rabbits who are desperately searching for their missing babies. Rudolph's Second Christmas has Rudolph discovering two kids named Sonny and Sis didn't get any Christmas presents the year before, due to their working at a failing circus which is constantly traveling to different places. Rudolph's Second Christmas (later renamed Rudolph to the Rescue) sat unpublished for decades until May's daughters found his manuscript in 1991, and it was published the following year.

Media Starring Rudolph:

  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1939): The original 1939 booklet written by Robert L. May and illustrated by Denver Gillen first published by the department store "Montgomery Ward". For the story's 25th Anniversary in 1964, it was combined with its sequel Rudolph Shines Again where it was illustrated by Marion Guild (whose illustrations stick more closely to Denver Gillen's original illustrations).
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948): Rudolph's animation debut, a 8-minute short film by Max Fleischer. It's a near-identical adaptation of the original booklet and actually predates the song. A 1951 reissue added in the song. The short film was produced by the Jam Handy Organization who later created a Christmas card featuring Rudolph.
  • "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer'' (1949): The classic song written by Johnny Marks note  and first recorded by Gene Autry. In 1959, The Ray Conniff Singers made an extended version of the song with newer lyrics added.
  • Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (1950-1962): Yearly comics about Rudolph published by DC Comics.
  • Rudolph Shines Again note  (1954): Robert L. May's official follow up to the 1939 story, illustrated by Marion Guild. The sequel would later get combined with the original 1939 story for Rudolph's 25th Anniversary in 1964. A Little Golden Book version was released in 1982.
  • "Run Rudolph Run" (1958): Second song about Rudolph written by Johnny Marks (who also written the original song) and Marvin Brodie (debatably) performed by Chuck Berry. The song is about Rudolph helping Santa on his annual Christmas Eve journey.
  • Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer (1958): A Little Golden Books picture book based on the song and very similar to the 1948 short. Richard Scarry did the illustrations for this version of the story. In 1976, the Little Golden Book version gained an audio read-along version by Disneyland Records.
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964): The famous Rankin/Bass Productions special. It's less true-to-the-text than the 1948 short. note  It's a stop-motion animation where Rudolph runs away from home and meets an equally ostrasized Christmas elf named Heremy who wants to be a dentist. The special has two sequels: Rudolph's Shiny New Year (1976) and Christmas in July (1979), the latter which crosses-over with Frosty the Snowman.
  • The Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Book (1972) note : A Golden Shape Book adaptation by Eileen Daly and illustrated by Milli Jancer. The book is similar to the Richard Scarry version but is notably shorter than the Scarry adaptation.
  • Rudolph's Second Christmas (1992): Another story starring Rudolph that was discovered by Robert May's daughters and originally illustrated by Michael Emberley. It was later renamed to "Rudolph to the Rescue'' in 2006 with new illustrations by Lisa Papp.
  • Rudolph's Lessons for Life (1996): A Direct-to-Video animated adaptation that was exclusively sold at Montgomery Ward Department stores with some edutainment in the mix. The video was produced by Duncan & Hill (a division of HA-LO Industries, Inc) while Joie Scott-Poster and Ted Kay directed this adaptation. This adaptation has two versions, one only focusing on the animated sections and the other has the animated section mixed with live-action actors (a female teacher and a group of children). Both versions are available on the same video.
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998): A feature-length animated film by GoodTimes Entertainment that is heavily based on the 1964 special with some elements of the original story. It was originally meant to be an adaptation of the special, but due to copyright issues this was axed (resulting in Rudolph's love interest Zoey being an expy of Clarice).
  • Rudolph Saves the Sprites (1999): A sequel book to the 1998 feature film.
  • Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Island of Misfit Toys (2001): An All-CGI Cartoon film that is made by GoodTimes Entertainment but uses the characters of the 1964 special. It acts as an unofficial sequel to the Rankin/Bass special.
  • Rudolph 4D, also known as Rudolph's Movie Experience (2016): A 3-D Movie with in-theater effects that is shown at Busch Gardens, SeaWorld, and some amusement and theme parks across America during the Christmas season. It's a Shot-for-Shot Remake of the Rankin-Bass special but with more expressive character models (notably for Rudolph and Clarice) and smoother stop-motion animation.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer provides examples of:

  • All of the Other Reindeer: The Trope Namer. Rudolph is ostracized by others for having a glowing, red nose instead of the normal black.
  • Animated Adaptation: The story currently has a total of 4 animated adaptations, with the first being the 1948 cartoon by Max Fleischer. The last two were a 1996 direct-to-video adaptation by Montgomery Ward and an animated feature film in 1998 by GoodTimes Entertainment. Out of the four adaptations, the 1948 cartoon and the 1996 direct-to-video adaptation are direct adaptations of the original story by Robert May.
  • Animal Gender-Bender: Male caribou shed their horns in the winter but Rudolph and the rest of Santa's reindeer don't.
  • Borrowed Catchphrase: Rudolph borrows Santa's catchphrase "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!" as a short speech to the other reindeer on Christmas morning after helping Santa's Christmas eve journey. The story also ends with that line uttered by both Santa and Rudolph.
  • Civilized Animal: Since the story mainly takes places at the North Pole and an unknown location where Rudolph lives (implied to be miles away from Santa's Workshop and home), the only animals that are present are the reindeer, who all behave like humans and are able to talk. Santa's reindeer are seen eating while sitting like humans, complete with handkerchiefs, Rudolph is seen standing near his bed, and some are seen walking on both four legs and two legs. Reindeer acting more human-like is also seen in the 1948 Max Fleischer cartoon and the 1996 direct-to-video adaptation Rudolph's Lessons For Life. The original Denver Gillen illustrations show a male reindeer smoking a pipe and Santa passing by Rabbitville, where he is delivering presents to rabbits.
  • Crying Critters: Rudolph is depicted crying in the original illustrations.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: After Santa finishing delivering toys to Rudolph. He quickly notices how well-lit Rudolph's room is due to his red nose serving as a nightlight. As he compares the brightness in Rudolph's room to the other houses and rooms that are dark (due to the foggy weather). He decides to wake up Rudolph to help him on his delivery alongside lighting up rooms and hallways for easy visibility.
  • Kid Hero: Rudolph is just a young buck who has barely grown in his antlers. Despite this, his glowing nose proves an asset to Santa and only he can help Santa fly in the snow. The exception is the Rankin-Bass version, where Rudolph is able to help Santa as a young adult.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: In every incarnation of the story, Rudolph is laughed at and called names by the other reindeer in the beginning but by the end on Christmas Eve, he finds a spot on Santa's sleigh. As the song says:
    Then all the reindeer loved him. As they shouted out with glee: "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, you'll go down in history".
  • Luminescent Blush: After Rudolph returns to the North Pole on Christmas morning, the reindeer are seen congratulating him for helping Santa out on his Christmas Eve journey. Rudolph responds by blushing, which causes his entire body to turn red that's as bright as his nose. It's more notable in the original illustrations by Denver Gillen.
  • Posthumous Collaboration: Before Robert L. May passed away in 1976, he wrote a third story starring Rudolph called Rudolph's Second Christmas. May written manuscripts for the story in 1947 but decided not to publish it, instead he released "Rudolph Shines Again" in 1954. "Rudolph's Second Christmas" wouldn't get published until Montgomery Ward and the author's daughters discovered his manuscript in 1991, and published the story in 1992. Due to Denver Gillen (the original illustrator) no longer being alive, it was illustrated by Michael Emberley. When it was renamed to Rudolph to the Rescue (to avoid confusion with "Rudolph's Shines Again") in 2006, it was illustrated by Lisa Papp.
  • Red Is Heroic: The titular character's most prominent body part is (obviously) his bright red nose which helps guide Santa's sleigh one foggy Christmas Eve when the man himself asks him.
  • Remember the New Guy?: At the time of release, Rudolph was an all-new character, but the song implies that he's a well-known character and even calls him "the most famous reindeer of all". Over the years, Rudolph's popularity has led to him becoming the most iconic of Santa's reindeer.
  • Rhymes on a Dime: The entire story and dialogue are told through rhyme, which is carried over to Montgomery Ward's 1996 animated adaptation.
  • Shrinking Violet: While Rudolph has a big heart, he's also very shy and the quietest of the reindeer and story. He's very insecure about his red nose (notably shown in the 1948 short and 1998 feature film) and literally turns red after Santa and his reindeer congratulate him on Christmas morning. His only dialogue in the entire story is bashfully quoting Santa's "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!" before walking back home.
  • Spell My Name With An S: While the general public knows how Rudolph's name is properly spelt. His name would sometimes be spelt as "Rudolf" by adding "F" and removing the "P" and "H" in his name. However in The Netherlands and Flanders regions of Belgium, he is known as "Rudolf Het Roodneus Reindier" or "Rudolf Het Rare Reindier".
  • Storybook Opening: The 1996 adaptation Rudolph's Lessons For Life has the main animated section set inside a storybook. This adaptation also opens and closes with a storybook before cutting back to a live-action setting with a male host.
  • Tender Tears: In the original 1939 illustrations, Rudolph is seen crying early in the story near a tree after the reindeer make fun of his nose. A close up of Rudolph crying is also seen, complete with Rudolph's tears dropping between the text.
  • This Looks Like a Job for Aquaman: Rudolph's glowing nose turns out to be exactly what's needed to save the day.
  • Through a Face Full of Fur: When Rudolph blushes, his body turns red from his head to his toes, which is brighter than his red nose.
  • White-Tailed Reindeer: The Trope Codifier. Rudolph and the other reindeer were depicted as generic-looking deer instead of realistic reindeer in the illustrations for the original pamphlet, and the design has stuck in every adaptation since, probably because it's easier to draw a glowing lightbulb-like nose on a regular deer than an actual reindeer. However, Rudolph and the other reindeer were depicted with light brown fur between a darker shade of brown in non-Rankin/Bass adaptations.