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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