Is there anything more intensive and fundamental to learning a language than vocabulary? Of course not. To learn how to use language without vocabulary is like learning to play hockey with out a puck, stick, or even knowing how to skate. Without vocabulary, there is a disconnect between language and person. One that can totally obfuscate important meaning and information.
The sheer tonnage that can be written about Alan Moore’s work is frightening to consider. But, while his literary flourishes and complex satires are well known, his short, company based work can often be overlooked. After all, while a tale like “In Darkest Night” from Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual #3 (1987) is elegant in execution, it doesn’t seem to add all that much to the overall history and myth of the Green Lanterns. Perhaps there is something more sinister being highlighted in this simple story of the pitfalls of language?
The story revolves around the Lantern Katma Tui visiting a “lightless cosmos” as she describes it. Katma Tui was sent to the Obsidian Deeps to deputize a Green Lantern for this dark sector of the Universe. Like any good soldier, she does as commanded without much more than a passing curiosity over her duties.
Upon arriving she finds the only creature that fits the requisites for Green Lantern-hood. As she glides down next to the creature, she notes it appears to be in a state of meditation. Without light, the creature never notices her until she attempts to speak. It startles the creature into a shrill cry that hurts Katma Tui’s ears.
Her speech has startled Rot Lop Fan because he thought himself alone. Not only was there another entity with Rot, but this was one that spoke as well – but not his language. Here again, language is shown to be a pivotal part of the story. How can a creature living in perpetual darkness understand a being from a section of the Universe that has light?
The ring begins to act as translator between the two, but a new dilemma arises. The creature has no words for light or colors from living on a completely dark world. Even the concept of power would be quite alien to him since all they seem to have is bells and meditation. Obviously not the characteristics of an aggressive species.
Being quite cunning, Katma Tui soon finds a way to improvise the rituals and pledges to accommodate this missing bit of vocabulary. This is the impetus of the story: that creatures exist that are not just ignorant of the Lanterns, but do not have the words to understand them. This throws a suspicion onto the Guardians and their methods. Would it be necessary to impart something completely alien to a species that has no ability to truly understand the tenants of it?
While Katma Tui’s execution of changing the pledge to incorporate sounds instead of light was successful, it does not demonstrate the universality of the Lantern’s. It simply implies that they are better advertisers than any had thought. To be sharp enough to modify your mission statement to fit alien cultures it does not belong in, this is a story played out countless times throughout history.
What are the Guardians truly doing when they appoint their ‘protectors’ through out the Universe? Instead of protection, it appears to be more of a colonialism. The installation of cultural ideas and mores foreign to a population, but instilled there anyway through coercion. After all, if Katma Tui would have given up her mission, wouldn’t the Guardians just have instilled someone anyway?
But maybe this is just an over-reading of the text. After all, I sleep nightly next to a stack of Pinker and Wittgenstein books. Perhaps there language fixations had begun to seep into my brain while I sleep. Then, near the end of the story, the Guardians make a joke that is quite frightening.
In reply to Katma Tui’s completing her mission debriefing, one Guardian says: “Thank you Katma Tui. We’ll try not to keep him in the dark too long.” While this is obviously a play on the fact that Rot Lop Fan lives in a perpetual state of night, but it is also an implication of their power. The Guardians are almost direct in the subtext that they do not need to ask. They can do as they see fit.
Like colonialists landing on foreign shores, they bring light/knowledge but also power. If the Obsidian Deeps were to resist, wouldn’t the Guardians simply show up with a corps of Lanterns and forcibly “convert” the sector? Well, of course they would be doing it in the name of Justice, right?
The Guardians duplicity is not a new aspect of them. That has been better shown in other stories. But I would submit, the Guardians surreptitious natures had not been put written so chillingly before, if ever. It is not frightening enough when someone wants to conquer simply for power. That is not a philosophical position, that is simply desire for gain. What is truly frightening in Moore’s story is the certainty shown with which the Guardians operate. These are the ‘protectors’ of the Universe after all, they are supposed to be undertaking this task with hubris, not the shrewd indulgence this joke displays.
To further show the point, the next, and last, panel shows Katma Tui half nude. She narrates, explaining that it took about four days for her to realize the Guardian had even made a joke. She felt uneasy for the rest of the day, so unnerved by the joke.
Jokes require not just a humanity to play from, but also the use of the pun which is a play on words implies an exclusivity. The Guardian is saying to Katma Tui: You and I have this language and vocabulary and therefore power. The joke is being made on Rot Lop Fan as well. That he does not have their language, that he does not have their power, therefore he does not have the privilege of choice. They do though.
While it can be asked if this is Alan Moore’s intention or not, the sheer arrogance on the side of the Guardians cannot be ignored. Like all great colonizers they are certain in their words and their philosophy. They are the Guardians.