Sunday, November 5, 2006

5 November

"Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot."

This morning it has been 401 years since Guy Fawkes was captured in a cellar beneath Parliament in England with the intention of blowing up both King James I and Parliament with 1800 pounds of gunpowder (hence the scheme's traditional name--"the Gunpowder Plot"). Fawkes was a member of a group of Catholic conspirators who, wishing to end the oppression Catholics had suffered for many years under the English Protestant monarchy (particularly the Stuart dynasty), sought to end the rule of King James and his Parliament once and for all. The intent of the plot was to detonate the explosives at the opening session of Parliament, where both the House of Lords and House of Commons would be addressed by the king. This would kill not only the king and his family, but most of the aristocracy as well. Fawkes, a career military man, was chosen to execute the plot itself because of his experience with explosives. The plot was uncovered and Fawkes was captured in the cellar beneath Parliament. Here it should be pointed out that the Parliament building that Fawkes sought to blow up in 1605 is not the same Parliament building that stands today. It burned in 1834 and then the present day Parliament was built (it took 30 years to do so and was finished in 1870).

In commemoration and celebration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, King James I instituted 5 November (since it is a British holiday, I might as well use British dating) as a national holiday. Perhaps the most notable elements in the celebration are the use of effigies (called "guys," after Fawkes himself) and the burning of bonfires (hence one of the celebration's other names--"Bonfire Night"). Traditionally, prior to the Fifth, the effigies or "guys" would be carried around, usually, but not always, by children who would ask for "a penny for the guy." The night of 5 November bonfires would be built on which the guys would be burnt. At one time effigies of the Pope would also be burnt, although that practice died long ago. Naturally, the night is also celebrated with fireworks. In fact, more fireworks are used in the United Kingdom on 5 November than on any other day of the year. Here it should be pointed out that even though the holiday is often called "Guy Fawkes Day" here in the United States, the bulk of the celebration takes place on the night of 5 November and hence is called in the United Kingdom and most of its other colonies "Guy Fawkes Night" or "Bonfire Night" and even in some places "Fireworks Night."

Beyond the use of effigies or "guys," the building of bonfires, and the use of fireworks, there are also other traditions associated with Guy Fawkes Night. In some areas of the UK, "bonfire toffee," a toffee made with black treacle, is eaten at this time. Parkin, a cake also made from black treacle, "toffee apples (apples coated on toffee and placed on sticks)," and baked potatoes are also eaten at this time. There is also the famous rhyme associated with Bonfire Night--"Remember, remember, the fifth of November..."

Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated across the United Kingdom, New Zealand, the provinces of Labrador and Newfoundland in Canada, and Britain's colonies in the Caribbean. Until the 1980s it was celebrated in Australia, but died out when they banned the commercial sale of fireworks. In what would become the United States in 1775 George Washington ordered his troops not to burn the Pope's effigy on Guy Fawkes Night. This and the general dismissal of various British traditions by the American Colonists would result in the United States ceasing to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night.

As perhaps the most prominent British holiday besides Christmas and New Year's Day, Guy Fawkes Night has naturally found its way into pop culture. As early as 1606 John Rhodes wrote a verse telling of the Gunpowder Plot. Several other bits of literature dealing with Guy Fawkes and the Plot were written in the following decades, most of them largely forgotten. John Milton, best known for Paradise Lost, wrote the verse "On the Gunpowder Plot" and many believe that the portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost, in which the Devil is said to have invented gunpowder, is largely influenced by Fawkes. By the 19th century Guy Fawkes Night was a firmly rooted tradition and found its way into many pieces of British literature. In the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Janes theorises that Miss Abbot thinks of her as a latter day Guy Fawkes. The historical novel Guy Fawkes by William Harrison Ainsworth, published in 1842, treated Fawkes sympathetically. In Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, Bonfire Night plays a pivotal role in the plot. Hardy even describes in depth of traditions associated with the holiday. Charles Dickens referred to Guy Fawkes, the Gunpowder Plot, and Bonfire Night in several of his works, including The Life And Adventures Of Martin Chuzzlewit and David Copperfield. More recently, Dylan Thomas dealt with the plot in one of his poems. The fifth of November and Guy Fawkes are also pivotal in the graphic novel V For Vendetta, written by Alan Moore and most of which was illustrated by David Lloyd. A film version was released in 2005 (it will be detailed more fully below). In Neil Gaiman's series of Sandman graphic novels, in "The Wake," it is said that William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson created the famous "Remember, remember, the fifth of November..." verse as a joke. In the Harry Potter series, Professor Dumbledore's phoenix is named Fawkes, perhaps because both Guy Fawkes and the phoenix are associated with fire.

The fifth of November has also been remembered in song. In 1612 John Wilson wrote a short song about the Gunpowder Plot. In the song "Remember" by John Lennon, featured on the album Plastic Ono Band, the famous "Remember, remember, the fifth of November..." verse is quoted. These lyrics are followed by an explosion. On the vinyl record of The Smiths' album Strangeways, Here We Come, the words "Guy Fawkes was a genius" on inscribed.

Despite the continued popularity of Guy Fawkes Night, Guy Fawkes has not figured prominently in movies. In 1923 a movie called Guy Fawkes, featuring Matheson Long in the title role, was released. Guy Fawkes appeared in the comedy Carry On Henry, the Carry On..." crew's send up of Henry VIII, although it must be pointed that his presence was an anachronism (Henry had been dead three years when Fawkes was born). Like the graphic novel, Bonfire Night and Guy Fawkes figure prominently in the film V for Vendetta. Indeed, the movie was originally slated to be released on the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. The film even used the famous "Remember..." verse as a tagline. Unforutnately, it was ultimately delayed until December 2005 in the United States and March 2006 in the UK. Some believe this was due to the bombings that took place on the tube in London on July 7 and July 21 of that year. There have been a few other references to Guy Fawkes and Guy Fawkes Night on film. In Hangover Square (released in 1945), one character disposes of a body by disguising it as a guy and tossing it onto a bonfire. The film also include two boys who elicit a "penny for the guy" from the same character and who recite the famous verse to him. Guy Fawkes is also mentioned in the Richard Linklater film Slacker.

On television a mini-series based on the events surrounding the Gunpowder Plot, titled Gunpowder, Treason and Plot aired in the UK in March 2004. Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night has also been referenced on various TV series. In The Avengers episode "November Five," John Steed and Cathy Gale must thwart a modern day version of the plot in which a nuclear warhead is going to be used to blow up Parliament instead of gunpowder. In The Simpsons parody of Mary Poppins, "Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious," Bart tells Sherri Bobbins that every day is Guy Fawkes Day for her. An episode of the animated series Daria featured the spirit of Guy Fawkes, although he looked and acted like Sid Vicious. The episode "Guy Fawkes" of the Britcom Barbara is set on Bonfire Night. There have also been several television documentaries over the years, on both sides of the Atlantic, focusing on the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes.

In the wake of the Gunpowder Plot and the decades, even centuries that followed, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators were often vilified. This has changed to some degree, perhaps largely due to the easing of tensions between Catholics and Protestants in England and perhaps largely due to changing opinions on the Stuart dynasty. Today it is not unusual for Fawkes to even be regarded as a hero. This is most obvious in both the graphic novel and the motion picture V For Vendetta, where Fawkes is portrayed as fighting against oppression. To a degree the ideas presented in V for Vendetta are nothing new. As early as 1842 Ainsworth took a sympathetic approach in portraying Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. Indeed, in a 2002 poll conducted by the BBC on the "100 Greatest Britons," Guy Fawkes made the list at number 30 (above such personages as Henry V, John Wesley, and J. R. R. Tolkien). The list included such people as Winston Churchill (who ranked at number one), John Lennon (who ranked at number 8), and Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson (who came in at number 9). It would seem, then, that opinions on Fawkes have changed dramatically over the years. Whether regarded as a hero or villain, however, I suspect that Guy Fawkes Night will not soon be forgot.


Unknown said...

Cool! Thanks for the information! The only thing I knew about Guy Fawkes was the bit I read before the movie (Vendetta) but it was no where this informative!


poppedculture said...

Great post - makes my work seem all light and fluffy. Oh, wait...

Anyway, it reminded me of a Sesame St. version of V for Vendetta that i've been meaning to post called C is for Cookie. It's great stuff:

Terence Towles Canote said...

LOL. Thanks for the link to C for Cookie, Jeremy. That was hilarious!