Although structuralism is no longer the fashionable critical mode it was in the 1960s and 1970s, it still underlies most theoretical discourse (everything labelled ‘poststructuralist’, ‘semiotic’ or even ‘deconstructionist’ builds upon structuralist concepts) and is of particular relevance to the study of fantasy. The very origins of the structural analysis of literature are tied to traditional fantastic genres such as fairy tale and myth, and structuralist approaches remain useful as correctives to critical assumptions about the pre-eminence of realism as a literary mode.
Most histories of structuralism trace it back to linguistics. Ferdinand de Saussure's lectures on language, assembled by his students as the influential Course in General Linguistics (1916), sorted out syntax, speech sounds and even the generation of meaning into orderly systems of parts and features. Saussure's scientific approach to language was imitated by other disciplines, including anthropology, art history, psychology and literary criticism. In each case, the approach was to break down a cultural product or expression into a set of constituent parts and then examine the way those parts were articulated, like boiling a body down to a set of bones and then assembling the bones into a skeleton. One might as easily describe the structure of a skyscraper or a psyche; a kinship system or a myth. This approach was both liberating and limiting: liberating because it did not assume that the essential structure of a thing was related to its apparent form or to the conscious intentions of its creator, and limiting because it tended to flatten out differences and to mistake the structure for the functioning whole.
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