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Dr. Toon: Santa, Sisyphus and Sam the Snowman

In this month's column, Martin Goodman gets a head start on Christmas by analyzing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town in mythic terms that would make Joseph Campbell proud.

The wonder [of myth] is that the characteristic efficacy to touch and inspire deep creative centers dwells in the smallest nursery fairy tale -- as the flavor of the ocean is contained in a droplet or the whole mystery of life within the egg of a flea.
-- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Martin Goodman.

What bespeaks the acceleration of pace so endemic to our culture more than seeing Christmas decorations edging their way into stores while Halloween candy lines the shelves? The end of October, which nears as I compose this column, seems to be a juxtaposition of at least three holidays, making this as good a time as any to present this piece to my readers. Halloween has origins that stretch perhaps back to the days of the Celts and Druids. Thanksgiving is a purely American holiday, an enduring national myth that is likely apocryphal in nature. Christmas, on the other hand, is a relatively recent phenomenon; as I noted in my holiday column of 2002, the Christmas we celebrate likely took final form around 1890. Animated holiday specials date from 1962 and are still being produced today, but few have impacted American culture as the seminal Christmas specials produced by Rankin/Bass.

The two specials that deserve specific mention are the first and 10th in the R-B manifest, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. They were produced in 1964 and 1970, respectively, bookending a period that represented monumental cultural change in America. The time was a propitious one for the revision of old myths, as much of the cultural fabric that held traditional America together was unraveling and stitching itself back together in new and unforeseen patterns. It was an era of reinvention, and even animation had a role to play. It is also noted that many of the existing Christmas myths, especially those of Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, were either cloudy or skimpy in origin.

The original Rudolph story, as I once recounted in a past column, was contained in a Montgomery Ward store souvenir flyer in 1939. The writer was Robert L. May. In 1949, May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote a hit Christmas tune based on the story, and Gene Autry recorded the popular tune. (Animation fans may note that Max Fleischer produced a cartoon version of Rudolph's story for the Jam Handy Corp. in 1944; this was five years before Marks' song was on the charts.) Santa Claus and his story have origins that stretch back to Odin and through Germanic and Saxon legends, finally finding visual codification by American cartoonist Thomas Nast. Rudolph's origins were far too simple, while Santa's was tortuous and complicated. Rankin-Bass deepened the myths -- and made them more accessible -- by adapting a story that has resonated through numerous cultures over time. It is known as the monomyth.

"The Hero's Journey," the most enduring monomyth known, is replicated in both the Rudolph and Santa Claus specials. As mythologist Joseph Campbell describes it:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

This monomyth is actually divided into 17 distinct sections, but Campbell noted that not every single stage of the structure is present in all cultures; there are more simplified versions, but all of them consist of stages known as "The Departure," "The Initiation" and "The Return."

Joseph Campbell's monomyth

In order to see how Rankin/Bass used this enduring myth, we first look at Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The 1964 Rankin/Bass Christmas television special is undeniably the most popular one ever produced. As Arthur Rankin Jr. related to R-B historian Rick Goldschmidt, Rudolph, after more than 30 years, was the "longest-running, highest- rated special in the history of television." As late as 1995, it was the highest-rated animated program that aired during the entire year. Why, in the long history of animation, was this particular special so popular and exceptional? It is undeniable that the characters were engaging, the musical numbers memorable and the "animagic" process charming, but let us look a bit deeper.

Rudolph's "departure" comes as the result of a deformity that earns the enmity of the reindeer population. Even Santa himself cautions Donner that the glowing nose simply will not do. After his defect is revealed before all of the other reindeer, Rudolph decides to leave Christmas Town in the company of Hermie the misfit elf. According to the monomyth, the Hero then encounters a (sometimes supernatural) protector who provides the hero with advice and aid. Thus, we have the experienced prospector Yukon Cornelius befriend Rudolph and Hermie. The Hero then typically crosses a "threshold" between his familiar world and one which is unfamiliar. This is the Island of Misfit Toys, where Rudolph finds he shares a different kind of fellowship with the inhabitants.

The Hero next embarks on the "road of trials" on which he must face a succession of obstacles. In the Rudolph story, Rudolph heads alone into the wilderness so as not to endanger his friends. He reaches maturity and wisdom and decides to return home to his family and his lady Clarice. Rudolph now experiences "the apotheosis," in which he sacrifices himself for a greater good in an attempt to rescue his parents and Clarice from the fearsome Abominable Snow Monster, who has captured the three reindeer. The Hero is aided by his supernatural helper in his hour of need (in this case, a team-up between Yukon Cornelius and Hermie the elf, who almost magically reappear in the story).

Did Rankin/Bass know that they were using myths for these specials? Probably not, as many would claim that these myths exist in the collective consciousness of humankind. An artist adjusts a scene for Rudolph, above.

The heroic reindeer returns home from his journey and trials to bestow "the boon" of his glowing nose and newly-earned courage to Santa in order that Christmas is saved from a horrific blizzard. The boon benefits not only Santa but also Hermie, the Snow Monster, the Misfit Toys, and finally, all children who await Saint Nick. Thus, Rankin/Bass re-created Rudolph as a mythic hero. By adding secondary characters that also fulfill roles in the Hero's Journey, the storytellers deepen the tale to the point where it is now recognized as an animated classic.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town incorporates the same themes of departure, initiation and return in order to tell the tale of Santa's origin as well as the origin of many other Christmas symbols and rituals. In this special, an abandoned baby of unknown origin is condemned to an orphanage by the cruel ruler of Sombertown, the Burgermeister Meisterburger. Blown into the forest by the wind, the babe arrives at the house of Kringle, where he is named Kris by his newly adoptive mother, Tanta. After learning the skill of toy making and gaining mystical communion with the forest animals, Kris sets out as a young man to bring toys to Sombertown (the Departure) despite the threat of harm from the dreaded Winter Warlock. Upon his departure Tanta gives Kris a red and white "Kringle" coat.

Kris is befriended by a penguin named Topper along the way but once in Sombertown they run afoul of the ill-tempered Burgermeister Meisterburger, who has declared all toys illegal. Schoolteacher Jessica is converted to the good by young Kringle, but Kris and Topper are forced to flee under threat of arrest. The journey becomes even more perilous when the pair is captured by the Winter Warlock. The evil sage, however, is won over by a simple act of kindness and becomes Kris' ally (again, the theme of the dangerous journey to a new world in which the Hero is aided in his passage by a supernatural being). "Winter," as he is now known, reveals that Jessica has the children of Sombertown writing hopeful letters to Kris.

The "Initiation" phase of this tale is repeated several times as Kris continually returns to Sombertown where he thwarts the Burgermeister's every injunction. When the town's doors are ordered locked, Kris goes down chimneys. Since the toys have to be hidden, the idea of stuffing them into stockings is born. Here we again see the aspect of the monomyth called "The Road of Trials," in which the hero must overcome a succession of daunting obstacles. On his side is Jessica and, of course, Winter and his magic. Eventually, Kris is captured and jailed. The Burgermeister sends a raiding party to the Kringle's home, capturing Tanta and the Kringle toymakers. Winter helps them escape by feeding reindeer magic corn; now capable of flight, the reindeer engineer a mass escape for the Hero and his kin.

The Burgermeister does not admit defeat easily, however. Kris grows a long beard as a disguise, but the persecution continues. Before departing for a new land, the North Pole, Kris marries Jessica on Christmas Eve in a forest of evergreens decorated for the affair. Winter uses an enchantment to bathe the trees in colored lights, accounting for yet another Christmas ritual. Kris' journey to the North Pole is both departure and return, since Kris has by now realized his true identity and destiny. He now has the ability to bring "The Boon" (the joy of Christmas) to children everywhere. The evil Burgermeister may have won the battle, but Kris Kringle -- now Santa Claus -- has won the war, and eternal heroism.

One can say that these two specials enchanted the existing culture, but their deeper accomplishment was to embellish an important aspect of American mythos. That's a tall task to lie at the feet of a passel of "animagic" stop-motion puppets, but Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass managed to achieve this feat by adapting universal myths that filled in the blanks and bridged unexplained gaps in antiquated stories and tales. By having each story narrated (by Sam the Snowman and Special Delivery Kluger, respectively) Rankin and Bass give the impression that one is hearing an epic tale being retold. Thus, Rankin and Bass were able to devise a mythology that was ingested by a generation of young viewers. With each annual showing of two influential Christmas specials, another generation is exposed to myths as powerful as any featuring Hercules, Jason or Sisyphus.

This analysis somewhat bespeaks the question: Did Rankin/Bass consciously know that they were using myths as old as human culture itself when they crafted these specials? After reading many interviews with the pair and several books on the subject, I have reached the conclusion that, no, they likely did not. Joseph Campbell (and certainly Carl Jung) would claim that these myths simply exist in the collective consciousness of humankind, and that they are universal to all peoples of all cultures (including Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass).

More interesting is the fact that the ancient myths of humankind were transmitted to new generations via the medium of animation. In fact, this feat was accomplished most convincingly. Annual TV ratings, DVD sales and popular lines of action figures and assorted merchandise items spawned by both specials support this fact. If American animation was merely a children's medium, as was often suggested in the 1960s, it would not have had the ability to carry such monomythic messages so powerfully (and with so much entertainment value). The genius of these Rankin-Bass specials was not only to make "Heroes" of Rudolph and Kris Kringle, but of animation itself.

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.