The Gruffalo: A Structuralist Analysis

It’s finally happened. I’ve now read certain children’s books so many times that I’m starting to internalise them. First it was Alison Jay’s excellent I Took the Moon for a WalkNow it’s The Gruffalo.

Cover of "The Gruffalo"

Cover of The Gruffalo

With an 11 month old I rarely get all the way through before the book is picked up and chewed, he starts to turn the pages back towards the beginning, or he just gets up and leaves. But what strikes me most about the book when I do make it all the way through is the beautiful symmetry to it. The first line is echoed in the last. The three meetings (with the fox, the owl and the snake) are played out in reverse order in the second half. It all tilts around the mid-point meeting with the Grufallo. It is so well structured it is a thing of beauty.

Now I can’t help but feeling that this echoes something familiar as an anthropologist. The ingredients of story – the symmetry and structure – make little Levi-Straussian bells go ding-a-ling in my head. The symmetry, while perhaps stripped down (it is for kids) echoes Levi-Strauss‘ analysis of the trickster myth. The little mouse being a Prometheus character.

Levi-strauss1

The story is in essence about a mouse who uses cunning to overcome three animals and a Grufallo who all want to eat him. So on the way to the apex of the story he is fearful of being eaten and must use his story-telling cunning to convince the fox, owl and snake that he himself is to be feared and therefore not eaten. The story-telling device he uses is to invent a horrid monster – the Grufallo. The twist then comes that when he gets past the three carnivorous animals he discovers the Grufallo really exists. He then walks back through the forest with the fear of each of the animals he’d passed earlier confirming his fearfulness to the Grufallo. His declaration that his favourite food is’ Grufallo crumble’ echoes earlier threats to the animals that the Grufallo’s favourite food is ‘roasted fox’, ‘owl ice cream’ and ‘scrambled snake’. It is also the final straw that sees the Grufallo flea in fear and the mouse left free to enjoy eating a nut.

So what we have here is the Levi-Straussian binaries of feared: fearful, prey: hunter, herbivore: carnivore, and reality: make-believe. The story is one of transformation through storytelling. As Edmund Leach notes of Levi-Strauss’ structuralism – it’s best to visualise these binaries in regards to triadic relationship – the transformative process being the third side to the triangle. Through storytelling the mouse is transformed from prey into hunter, from herbivore to carnivore, from the fearful to the feared. He is the trickster – achieving all of this through his wit and storytelling ability. But in trickster myths regarding fire, the pivot of transformation occurs when fire is stolen. Here, rather than it being fire, the power the mouse acquires seems to be the ability to construct reality through story. The Grufallo is brought into existence through his story-telling. While often there is a punishment received by the trickster in such myths – this is a lovely gentle children’s story. Here the mouse defeats the Grufallo. His reward – a return to his natural state as herbivorous – but in a new life without fear.

‘The mouse took a walk in the deep dark wood. The mouse found a nut and the nut was god.’

I may have over-thought this.

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6 thoughts on “The Gruffalo: A Structuralist Analysis

  1. Ah, but then this opens the question of how we are to interpret “The Gruffalo’s Child”!

    To summarise the ‘myth’: The Gruffalo narrates to his daughter the characteristics of the Big Bad Mouse, giving four particulars: Strength, a long scaly tail, eyes like pools of terrible fire, and whiskers as tough as wire. The Gruffalo’s child then sneaks out while her father is asleep and goes through a series of encounters with the animals of the previous book: the snake, the owl, the fox and, finally, the mouse, who scares her into running back to the safety of her father’s cave.

    Now, this book doesn’t display the symmetry shown in the previous one. Instead, it displays a succession of encounters that are partial reflections of the opening narration of the Big Bad Mouse. I think the way to approach this here is not with Lévi-Strauss’s symmetries but rather to think through the idea of the one and the many, particularly as it’s illustrated in Gregory Schrempp’s book ‘Magical Arrows’.

    The initial narration creates the all-fearful creature of the Big Bad Mouse as a whole encompassing four qualities. However, through the journey made by the Gruffalo’s Child these qualities are steadily spaced out and isolated from one another (as in Schrempp’s comparative accounts of Polynesian origin myth and the paradoxes of Zeno of Elea). First, the Gruffalo’s Child comes across what she thinks is the Big Bad Mouse’s tail—but it turns out to be the snake, a creature in its own right. Next she sees two great eyes gleaming out of a tree—but this turns out to be the owl. Next, she sees some whiskers poking from a hole—but it’s the fox. The wholeness of the Big Bad Mouse has been broken down, as each of it’s characteristics are formed into species of their own.

    After all this, she meets the (actual) mouse, who seemingly displays none of the qualities. Yet by using the power of the moon to cast a giant shadow, the one who is none of the parts creates (for the Gruffalo’s Child) the sum, the wholeness that is the Big Bad Mouse.

    Thus, the mythical beast as a whole can be broken down into the discrete elements that are the different animals. However, only the animal who is not represented, not one of the parts, can be scaled up to become the whole.

    Right, I think we can step back and let the masters in Paris think through the implications of our findings.

  2. Awesome! My familiarity with The Gruffalo’s child is based on the animated film from two Christmases ago (there’s not a board book of it for some reason and Nye still thinks books are edible). I LOVE your interpretation but I’m tempted to also see a meta-symmetry across the two stories, the mouse having taken on the fearful role of the Gruffalo at the end of the last story now starting to subsume characteristics of the very animals he feared to begin with (through the tail, the eyes and the whiskers). But mine is a cursory analysis – I will have to read it to properly internalise the dynamics of the story.
    I now have a copy of The Snail and the Whale. I am expecting depths. I may be setting myself

  3. On reflection, I think I downplayed the link between the two — I’d be willing to argue in favour of a metasymmetry, particularly because there’s very little reason for the division and recombination in The Gruffalo’s Child without the mouse to re-anchor it to the previous narrative at the end. A second opinion would certainly help take the analysis to new heights.

  4. I’d go for a metasymmetry. The Gruffalo’s Daughter, which does have a board book version because we have one, ONLY really makes sense as an extension of The Gruffalo. But, I do like the way Hugh has so masterfully analysed it in its own right.

    You are BOTH, by the way, over thinking these masterpieces, but the people I work with in Pakistan tell me I over think just about everything they do, so perhaps it’s an occupational hazard of anthropology. We take a lot of ostensibly trivial things pretty darn seriously.

    • My desire to push the Grufffalo analysis further is almost overwhelming. Part of me wants to run a conference on frivolous anthropology just to write it (although the frivolous anthropology conference might just be me presenting 20 papers on random crap I’ve overthought). I am currently overthinking the ambiguous moral content of early Thomas the Tank Engine stories and the unknowability of exact meanings in the magical realistic portrayal of Duck and other characters in Sarah and Duck.

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