“Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holla boys, Holla boys, let the bells ring.Holloa boys, holloa boys,
God save the King!
And what should we do with him?
Burn him!” Traditonal
Happy Guy Fawkes Day everyone! (Or Guy Fawkes night, or Bonfire night, or maybe even Fireworks night, as the kids sometimes call it, I’m told). All I really know about Guy Fawkes comes from T.S. Eliot and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, oh and Dumbledore’s bird, right?
Let’s see if I get any of this right.
So yeah. apparently there was this guy, LITERALLY this Guy. Guy Fawkes,. What a name! Guy Fawkes. He was involved (but not the leader of) this conspiracy to blow up parliament to kill the Protestant King James I so that they could get a Catholic in there. Did I mention Guy Fawkes was a Catholic? He was. Now friends of this blog will remember that my antecedents hail from Ulster, and we we’ve got a whole kneecap full of baggage associated with the old Prods vs. Catlicks and I have no interest in “dragging the past out in to the light”, as it very much were, in this particular post.
Needless to say, the plot failed. It was discovered before it even got off the ground. There were a bunch of people in on it, so I’m not entirely sure why we are supposed to remember Guy Fawkes above all others, except for maybe the fact that he was in charge of the explosives, and he had a kick-ass name. The actual leader of the group, Robert Catesby, was by all accounts smarter, handsomer and richer than Guy, but he had a snoozefest of a name so who cares about him?
So Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed due to an anonymous tip, and was thrown in the Tower (classic!) and tortured until he gave up the names of his co-conspirators. He was then hanged and cut open etc etc. They liked to do that back in those days. You either had your innards cut open and sent to the four corners of the realm, (sort of like a grotesque Olympic Torch Run) or you were beheaded and your head was stuck on a pole to be displayed as a warning, Game of Thrones style. So yeah, not really the greatest thing to celebrate with fireworks and treats and whatnot, but there you have it.
Almost immediately afterwards, this event (or non-event, really), became celebrated all over Britain. It sort of started as an “anti-terrorist, anti-catholic” thing where you’d gather sticks and paper up into effigies of Guy Fawkes (not that anyone really knew what the poor Guy looked like) or the Pope (that one was easier: white robes? pointy hat? Bingo bango, baby you’ve got yourself a POPE going on) and set them on fire as a reminder to stay vigilant against the spread of popery everywhere. T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men” actually opens with the quote, “A penny for the old Guy” which is supposedly what the kids would say on Guy Fawkes night as they collected door to door just before the effigy was lit. That poem is full of memorable imagery of humanity being no more that dried out husks, with no more life than a Guy Fawkes effigy. If you’re not familiar with the poem at all, it’s definitely worth a read. It’s full of wonderful imagery and turns of phrase. You can find it here. It still says something to me, more than 20 years after first reading it in Mr. Pauls’ high school English class. The line “lips that would kiss form prayers to broken stone” still rolls into my head from time to time.
More recently, the day has been reframed from Guy Fawkes’ point of view. Instead of the “foreign anti-parliament terrorist” he’s being cast as one who speaks out and takes action against any tyrannical system (government, corporations). And the trend continues. You’ve got comedians talking revolution and rockstars talking poverty at a time when governments appear to be unwilling and unable to make effective and relevant decisions for the people they were supposedly set up to serve. The comic and movie, V for Vendetta went a long way in rebranding Guy from terrorist to freedom fighter. And you know what? On a day when the corrupt Mayor of Toronto announces that he is not resigning from office, and while our Senate is filled with crooks and assholes, it’s hard not to root for the guy with the explosives.