Fawkes. Guy Fawkes.
I know it’s been and gone, but it seems fitting to write this now. Late. After it has ceased to be relevant.
In that spirit I would like us all to pause for a moment. Please. With me. Close your eyes and let us remember the true meaning of Guy Fawkes.
Um… I’m going to go with…. blowing up politicians?
Actually, the original true meaning of Guy Fawkes is something along the lines of this: Fuck Catholics.
People today celebrating Guy Fawkes with fireworks makes about as much sense as people in the year 2417 celebrating Osama Bin Laden with paper planes and airshows. Guy Fawkes was a failed Catholic terrorist. He wanted to blow up the entire political class, start a civil war, and make England a Catholic country. He failed. He got executed. Explosive plots. Shoot outs. And torture. That’s what we are celebrating. Happy Death to Catholics Day everybody! God save the King!
This whole deal started because the King and parliament – who were quite thankful about not being exploded to death – decided the whole country should give thanks. And for some reason we’ve really liked it. Other weird traditions from that era have long since gone. Yet Guy Fawkes is one guy who has stuck with us for over four hundred years.
Why are we still doing this?
The thank-God-we’re-not-Catholic bit more or less died out in the 19th Century. We all decided to be a bit more orderly about things and stop beating people up. But you could still burn effigies of the Pope if you really wanted. Or the Russians. Or Tony Blair. Whoever you feel needs a good burning.
Then the fireworks industry got in on the on the action, using it as an annual celebration of their product. Seems we were okay with that. And entrepreneurial children also got in on the action, using it as an opportunity to sell effigies for burning so the could buy fireworks, because… fireworks.
Nowadays Guy Fawkes is morphing yet again. Governments, unimpressed by their citizens burning things down and blowing off fingers, have been moving us into an era of organized community fireworks displays. How very civilized.
And not one word about Catholics.
Yet the Guy Fawkes tale has also shot off in another bizarre tangent. Some of us quite like the idea of blowing up politicians. Ever seen that white-faced, mustachioed, smiling mask? The one beloved by Anonymous? That’s Guy Fawkes. Those masks are film merchandise.
The film V for Vendetta, where that mask comes from, turned the whole 5th of November tale on it’s head. Guy-Fawkes-the-terrorist-fanatic became Guy-Fawkes-the-model-anarchist-freedom-fighter. Woo-hoo! Let’s blow those fascists sky-high! Here Guy Fawkes takes on the meaning of a mad jester’s threat: if you politicians screw with us too much, we might just try to blow you to pieces. All of you! Kaboomy!
This whole fire-lit celebration has evolved rather a lot over the years.
I see little sign that Guy Fawkes will ever settle down as something coherent. Guy Fawkes is both hero and villain simultaneously. Guy Fawkes is about nothing and about everything simultaneously. Trivial and inspiring. Annoying and beautiful. You can sit at home doing nothing. You can run out and spend $6000 on explosives. No one cares. No one understands. Nobody knows what we’re doing.
Perhaps that is the secret to its success.
Any meaning or none can be wrapped around a hearty glowing core of fire, and explosions, and the vague sense that this all has something to do with politics.
That, I think, is the true meaning of Guy Fawkes. We’re all pyromaniacs. And we’re all confused.
Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:
A brief guide to Guy Fawkes from the BBC here.
The Guy Fawkes mask as the symbol of carnivalesque protest, on the Guardian, here.