Gunpowder, Treason, and Bonfires, Oh My!

WordPress analytics tell me that pretty much everyone reading this is probably American, so it’s hardly your patriotic duty to remember, remember the fifth of November at all. But I’ve got this hunch that there’s some interesting stuff to be found in thoughts that revolve around Guy Fawkes, so let’s have a little history lesson, shall we?

Once upon a time, there was this lovely little country called England, which had been ruled by Catholics pretty much forever, until this weird guy called Henry decided that he wanted a son more than he wanted the Pope as an ally and thus declared himself SUPREME RULER OF THE CHURCH AND THINGS. And that set off this power struggle between Protestants and Catholics because Henry’s children were a mix of both faiths. Thus, the line of succession went a little like this: Protestant, Protestant, violently Catholic, diplomatically but repressively Protestant, Protestant.

And it was during that poor sap James I’s rule that some Catholics got angry and decided to overthrow him. Maybe it was the restrictions that Elizabeth had placed on them because of their religion, maybe it was leftover anti-Protestant vitriol from Bloody Mary’s reign. Whatever the cause, these guys reached the conclusion that they could not tolerate a Protestant ruler any longer. So in 1605, they staged an attempt on James’ life.

Guy “Guido” Fawkes (no seriously that was his nickname the BBC said so), by then a veteran of the war between Catholic Spain and the Protestant Low Countries, was put in charge of guarding the gunpowder. Unfortunately for him (but luckily for James and the hooligans undoubtedly loitering about the House of Lords), he was discovered, arrested, tortured, and hanged. Needless to say, the Gunpowder Plot was a massive failure, which the British celebrate every year with bonfires (because, really, why not?), burning effigies of not only Fawkes, but more modern enemies of The People, including Margaret Thatcher.

And we care about all of this because of a guy named Alan Moore, who wrote this little series of comic books about an anti-establishment terrorist in a dystopian, totalitarian version of the UK. It’s called V for Vendetta–dunno if you’ve heard of it?–and the hero parades around in this eerily smirking Guy Fawkes mask. V deserves an in-depth analysis of its own, especially when you take the historical circumstances of its creation into account (good old Maggie Thatcher again), but the most important part here is the mask, which has become iconic of populist movements everywhere.

So let me reiterate the fact that Fawkes was thisclose to murdering a bunch of people on the grounds that they didn’t follow the right religion. He’s not someone you’d really want to associate with peaceful demonstrations. But somehow he got turned into this symbol of The People and that’s so totally misguided and stupid because he wasn’t anti-establishment, he was anti-the-establishment-that-was-in-power-at-that-moment and, more importantly, pro-a-different-establishment-for-pretty-bigoted-reasons. Also, you know, a terrorist and stuff.

But it’s sexy to romanticize violence on behalf of The People, which is why everyone likes Batman even though the very trend that the Batman movies are a part of was sparked by fear of things like 9/11, itself an act of ideological violence. This whole selective memory thing is why demonstrators from Occupy Wall Street to anti-government groups in Athens have worn Fawkes masks as some symbol of rebellion, which probably made them feel like superheroes and that’s all well and good until you realize that they were idolizing a supervillain.

The real question, though: what’s up with Dumbledore’s phoenix?


5 thoughts on “Gunpowder, Treason, and Bonfires, Oh My!

  1. Meredith,
    Thanks for sharing! I love that you have been able to relate this to TOK!!! Now…really??? the Phoenix? What’s the quesion?

    • The phoenix is named Fawkes, which Rowling has said is after Guy Fawkes, but I’m at a total loss for a logical reason she would’ve made that allusion. Aside from the connections to fire, it seems inexplicable to me.
      Thanks for reading!

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