Structuralism is spawned from language. The brain behind the movement was Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. There appear to be many different aspects of a structuralist approach to literature, some of which are still useful, some that have become outdated. In a nutshell, the idea that language is all encompassing, that it stretches over nearly every part of human life, is essential. Saussure also breaks down this concept of symbolism so much that even words themselves are merely symbols for what they refer to. Simple, right?
But the main point of structuralism for us in Old Norse studies is the latching onto patterns. Lévi-Strauss, the founder of the wonderful denim company, developed his anthropological structuralism into a literary theory. This is rather straightforward. Lévi-Strauss was studying the differences in cultural signs, but with the help of Vladimir Propp's book on myths, he began to see connections. Myths from different cultures and different times worked along the same underlying principles and even shared some of the same structures, even if the settings and characters were completely different. This, then, is transferred into narratives in general. Certain underlying structures of narratives can be gleaned, and how well the narrative uses these structures reveals more or less its value.
Or, on the other hand, we can use this concept to look at the sagas, which are, after all, rather repetitive and formulaic. The introductions to stories, the building up of characters, and even the action sometimes reflects that of other sagas and even of other continental literature. Studying these common structures within the narratives can tell us more about the individual texts and about the genre as a whole. This can be of great assistance when trying to discover variances in texts or outside influences. When the introduction of characters begins every time with, "there was a man called _____ and he was _______.
A structuralist approach to Njals saga also reveals certain patterns. Many scholars such as Joseph C. Harris, Jesse Byock, and Andrew Hamer have reached very different conclusions from their view of the structure of this one particular saga. Patterns can be found throughout literature and no doubt certain aspects of structuralism can be of use, but that is not the end all. And, just as with Njals saga, over-enthuisasm for the particulars can lead to overexposure and beating a burned down horse.