Themes and Meanings
An overarching theme in the Karla trilogy is a postmodern Arthurian quest in which George Smiley is an unlikely Percival who shares much with an aged King Arthur drawn from retirement in his Bywater Street Avalon. Ann Smiley may be seen as an updated and libidinous Guenivere and Bill Haydon as an all-too-witting Lancelot. That the source of Russian disinformation is Source Merlin and the operation is Witchcraft are examples of allusive elements in the novels, as is the reiteration that Karla is Smiley’s Black Grail. In this romance, however, the forces of good and evil are superficially separate but existentially intertwined, as on a darkling plain swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight. Le Carré achieves these and other literary resonances by allusion, not allegory, so that the themes of epic and romance are suggested rather than symbolically articulated in one-to-one correspondences. Just as it would be inaccurate to read the works allegorically, so would it be wide of the mark to read them as romans a clefs about the search for the “Fourth Man,” or fourth double agent, whose existence was strongly suspected after the defection of the British mole “Kim” Philby to the Soviet Union in 1963.
The quest motif goes beyond the world of espionage to the ultimate quest for meaning in the illusions of illusionless men, in the examination of similar means used for different ends in London and in Moscow, in the probing of situations and a newer code of chivalry that replaces a chivalry long past, and in the recesses of consciousness where it is plain that playing the Great Game is more consequential than winning it. Yet the oppressively melancholic atmosphere in the novels, the sordidness of several of the characters and their environments, and the pervasive paranoia of a spy’s routine existence conspire to pose an overwhelming question about the value of the game itself. This uncomfortable question admits of numerous answers in the novels. ranging from chauvinistic to cynical, but, like the quest, the question itself may be more important than its answer. It is, then, immensely important to the Circus but perhaps only marginally important to Smiley that he has succeeded in causing Karla to defect to the West.