“Remember, remember, the fifth of November and the gunpowder treason and plot.”
– English nursery rhyme
Today is Guy Fawkes Day in the United Kingdom, which commemorates the 1605 discovery of a plot by Roman Catholic rebels to blow up the British Parliament building. It is traditionally celebrated with fireworks, bonfires, and the burning of effigies of the infamous traitor. In the modern world, Guy Fawkes and his day have taken on a new significance as symbols of the rejection of authority.
One of the staples of the November 5th celebration is the Guy Fawkes mask, which is now recognized around the world, ever since it figured prominently in the 2006 film V for Vendetta. Based on a graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd, the movie featured a mysterious rebel who fights the fascist government of a post-nuclear-war Britain. The character “V” wears the Fawkes mask to hide his identity, and possibly also to hide the effects of horrific government experimentation he had suffered previously.
The movie was tremendously popular in America, where fans drew parallels between its fictional neo-Nazi government and the war-obsessed surveillance state of George W. Bush. Guy Fawkes was quickly adopted by both libertarians and left-wing radicals as a symbol for anti-government protests. The Internet hacker group Anonymous wore the mask in protests against the Church of Scientology in 2008. The mask also appeared in the Occupy Wall Street protests and in Egyptian protests during the 2011 Arab Spring.
Guy Fawkes Day was also the occasion of the first “money bomb,” a new kind of unofficial political fundraiser, invented by grassroots libertarians to aid the 2008 Ron Paul Presidential campaign. It was a call for as many people as possible to donate money on that day, as a special show of support. The day was an appropriate metaphor for the word, since Fawkes and his cohorts meant to literally bomb the House of Lords. But it also drew fire from neo-conservative detractors of Dr. Paul, who claimed that the choice of day was an endorsement of terrorism. I would argue that Fawkes was not a terrorist, but a would-be assassin, since his plot targeted not civilians but enemy politicians. Still, the connotation of violence was problematic for those lacking a sense of humor.
It’s easy to see why the Fawkes mask became associated with rebellion after its use in V for Vendetta. The reasoning behind Moore’s choice of the Guy Fawkes theme is not so straightforward. He meant the character V to be morally ambiguous, possibly a hero, or maybe a madman. The historical Fawkes was a suitably complex character, and was no angel, though not quite a demon either. He plotted the violent deaths of hundreds, though at least he targeted his enemies in government rather than innocent civilians. He fought the tyrannical rule of King James I, whose discriminatory laws made life hellish for English Catholics. If the plot had succeeded, however, the rebels would have imposed a Catholic monarch who likely would have been just as oppressive to Protestants.
Upon his arrest, Fawkes was initially defiant, gaining the admiration of King James, though not his mercy. He resisted hours of brutal torture but finally broke, implicating and dooming his co-conspirators. All were tried and given the particularly sadistic sentence of death by drawing and quartering. On the day of his execution, Fawkes cheated the authorities of their brutal revenge by jumping off the gallows platform, thus breaking his own neck.
Though the movie version of Vendetta made the face of Guy Fawkes into a world-wide meme, Alan Moore was highly critical of the adaptation. He felt the script had simplified the V character to made him more of an unambiguous hero, and also softened the graphic novel’s anarchistic message. Personally, as much as I enjoyed the movie and rooted for V, I still felt conflicted about him. I found his imprisonment and psychological torture of his protege Evey (supposedly to break her fear of death and assure her love of liberty) to be quite disturbing.
Regardless of the controversy surrounding the historical Fawkes, November 5th has become an important day for those who love liberty around the world. It is no longer just for the English to remember.