Walt Disney steered well clear of ambiguity; John le Carré thrives on it; that said, respective story architectures are identical

At a previous post I’ve noted, by way of an excerpt from a Cinema Canada article I wrote in 1978, that the original Nine Old Men of the Walt Disney animation studio steered well clear of ambiguity.

Each symbol used in early Disney animated films, starting in the 1930s, has a clearly defined, restricted meaning, and the purpose of the artwork is to implant that meaning, and nothing else, in the viewer’s mind.

Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas, the last of the Nine Old Men of the original Disney animation studio. Photo source: Cinema Canada

That is to say, character types presented in early Disney animation were standard types. Each character did what you expected such a character to do.

An arrogant character would drop a bit of litter in a characteristic way. A sneaky character would drop a piece of paper in a way that is characteristic of sneakiness, and so on; an excerpt from the article reads:

For example, the cartoonist uses a standard lexicon of symbols of facial expression and posture to depict a wide range (and the subtle gradations) of emotions. Another level of non-verbal communication involves “acting symbols” in which specified variations in ways of moving tell an audience something about different characters.

[Frank] Thomas demonstrated the role of acting symbols with the example of how different characters would throw away a piece of paper. The paper can be dropped casually, or as if it’s very precious, or in the different ways a person who is near-sighted, arrogant, or sneaky, drops it.


I’ve recently been reading A Legacy of Spies (2017) by John le Carré. It’s a feature of le Carré’s spy fiction that ambiguity is built into the characters, in this form of storytelling.

As well, ambiguity is built into key situations, as the story unfolds.

Sorting out what the ultimate relation is, between figure and ground – or, in terms of Erving Goffman’s analysis, what the precise distinction is between backstage and frontstage realities – is the central operating principle, of such a form of spy fiction.

A key point is that despite apparent differences, in relation to how ambiguity is dealt with, both traditional Disney animation and traditional spy fiction are fundamentally alike.

Each genre presents a characteristic narrative arc. In each genre there is a set of problems and, in the final scene, a solution is enacted. The underlying narrative structure is identical.

25th novel

An Oct. 11, 2019 Guardian article is entitled: “My ties to England have loosened: John le Carré on Britain, Boris and Brexit: At 87, le Carré is publishing his 25th novel. He talks to John Banville about our ‘dismal statesmanship’ and what he learned from his time as a spy.”

An excerpt reads:

Did being a spy give him a sense of belonging, of finally finding a workable identity for himself? “Looking really – in some Faustian sense, God help me – for what the world holds at its innermost point, was a way of asking, what are we? Who were we? Which is probably an extension of the question, who the hell am I? Where is virtue to be found? Where is the altar of Englishness? And I think that really was quite a severe internal journey, and a very interesting one, in retrospect: a lost boy in search of something or other.”

But when he was a member of the security services did he feel he was in touch with the real world, as distinct from the fantasised one in which the majority of us blithely live? “Please remember, I was a very junior figure in both MI5 and MI6. So much of what in my novels is assumed to be interior knowledge is really imagined stuff. But when I was allowed to attend operational meetings I heard what bigger animals than I were getting up to, and so by the time I got out of that world – with great relief – I had a really big treasure chest of imagined operations, which were based on glimpses of the reality. But I never did anything of the least value in that world.”

Oct. 14, 2019 BBC interview with John le Carré

An Oct. 14, 2019 BBC article is entitled: “John le Carré: ‘Politicians love chaos – it gives them authority’: The author’s latest book is set in the political turmoil of 2018 London. Ahead of the release of his latest novel, novelist and former MI6 spy John le Carré talks to the BBC about our world leaders and why “human decency” must prevail.”

An excerpt reads:

Yet this story – “it’s a book that’s supposed to entertain. I believe it does. I’m a storyteller” – is as much about the past as the present. We talked about the early days, writing his breakthrough novel when he was still serving in MI6. “If I go right back to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold we’re dealing with the same conflict between personal object of personal obligation and state obligation what you owe to society in its organized form.”

That theme, on which he’s composed so many variations over more than five decades, has become more disturbing through the years. The strange simplicities of the Cold War – the two sides knew each other for what they were – have given way to a more puzzling mix of loyalties. For a writer like le Carré, it’s as if events have conspired, painfully, to make his point.

He’s never afraid to pose the most difficult questions. “If MI6, by accident or design, came upon absolutely irrefutable evidence that Trump had been up to no good in a big way in Russia, what would they do with that intelligence? And, incidentally, what would our leaders do?”

Behind the intricacies of this story, cut from the same cloth as many of his finest books, lies a fear that such questions can’t be answered in the way they once were. He produces, as ever, some sparkling throwaway lines that spring off the page. The president of Russia and the United States are talking, and Putin “smiled his jailer’s smile”.

Getting the history in place

The Acknowledgements (p. 265) to A Legacy of Spies (2017) provide evidence of the care the author takes in ensuring his stories are set within plausible historical parameters:


My sincere thanks to Théo and Marie Paule Guillou for their generous and illuminating guidance through Southern Brittany; to Anke Ertner for her tireless researches into Berlin East and West in the nineteen sixties, and the precious tidbits of personal recollection; to Jurgen Schwammle, scout extraordinaire, for finding out the escape route taken by Alec Leamas and Tulip from East Berlin to Prague and escorting me along it; and to our impeccable driver Darin Damjanov, who made the snowy journey a double delight. I must also thank Jörg Drieselmann, John Steer and Steffen Leide of the Stasi museum in Berlin, for a personal tour of their dark domain, and for the gift of my very own Petschaft. And finally, my special thanks to Philippe Sands, who, with a lawyer’s eye and a writer’s understanding, guided me through the thickets of parliamentary committees and legal process. The wisdom is his. If there are errors, they are mine.

John le Carré

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