The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot! “
-English Folk Verse
It’s November 5th, which means that it’s Guy Fawkes Day (also known as Bonfire Day and Gunpowder Day in the UK). This English-originating holiday has seen increased global attention in recent years, as symbols for Guy Fawkes have become integrated into popular culture and activist communities. However, many are still unaware of the history behind the day and, relatedly, the message that some are trying to send by relation.
Guy Fawkes himself was an actual man in England at the turn of the 17th century. He was a member of a group of Catholic conspirators that sought to forcibly create change in the Protestant-controlled government. Their treasonous plot was to place a large amount of gunpowder underneath the Parliament building and blow up King James, along with some of his crew and other legislators. On the fifth of November, the day the explosion was planned for, Guy was underneath the building ensuring everything was in place to go off, but Guy and other extremists were then detained (and later executed) because one of their own had sent a warning letter, leading the King to discover their intentions.
Immediately after that, there was call for celebration as the king had been saved (although information beyond “the king being saved” from something was unbeknownst to the general population). The tradition continued annually, and people began to uncover more about the events of November 5th over time. Fireworks and bonfires have been the traditional methods of celebration (with effigies representing Guy Fawkes even being thrown onto the bonfires).
For much of its observance, Guy Fawkes Day has been a celebration of British patriotism and the resilience of the crown. However, one particularly influential story began to add additional interpretation to the holiday: V for Vendetta.
The graphic novel V for Vendetta by Alan Moore was published in serial from 1988-1989 and was most widely read by American audiences. A movie adaptation was produced and released in 2005 with the full Hollywood treatment (including taking liberties with the source material). The story’s anti-hero is the mysterious terrorist V who goes to extremes to try and take down the London-based totalitarian government of this possible near-future. V is portrayed in a mask modeled after the traditional Guy Fawkes mask in both the novel and the movie, and his methods included both hacking and physical destruction such as blowing up the Parliament building on November 5th. By the end of story, citizens other than the original V don the Guy Fawkes mask and begin fighting back against the tyrannical government.
It’d be surprising if you hadn’t seen people wearing Guy Fawkes masks in pictures or even up close within recent years (even if you didn’t recognize it as such). Following the sentiment at the end of V for Vendetta, protestors and activists sometimes wear it as a symbol for the fight against oppression, and the mask also presents a message that it’s about the group rather than the individuals taking power back. During the Occupy movement, many protesters were seen wearing the mask (even though, as is popularly pointed out, Warner Brothers gets a cut of every purchase of the trademarked mask). The mask has also become the face of Anonymous, a famous group of online hackers and activists (or “hacktivists”) that find and sometimes release or manipulate the details of the lives of those that they identify as unjust. For example, Anonymous hackers have infiltrated KKK databases and released names of members found there.
The holiday was first celebrated to rejoice that the King had been saved on limited information, and that changed to general revelry over time. Then, a critical eye was taken to the characters of the event being “remember[ed], remember[ed],” and loud and multi-leveled discourse began about the role of government and identity. Regardless of what the day and the political significance of the legacy means to you, I think it’s fascinating how one dissenting group’s actions can have such a substantial impact on culture and spark dynamic discussion over 400 years later.