“Remember, remember; the Fifth of November…
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgotten…”The 5th of November Song
Such is the opening to the nursery rhyme for Guy Fawkes night, November 5th, where English celebrate the failed terrorist plot by Catholic convert Guy Fawkes. This event occurred in 1605; we are now in the 21st century, and plenty has changed. Yet Guy Fawkes remains a pop culture icon and a fascinating historical figure. In this article, I will explain who Guy Fawkes was, and how he became a symbol for anarchy, freedom and whistleblowers.
Who was Guy Fawkes?
Guy Fawkes was a Catholic convert, born in 1570, who was part of the failed Gunpowder plot of 1605. This involved the potential blowing up of Parliament; he was, centuries after his torture and execution, referred to as the ‘only man to enter Parliament with honest intentions.” Interestingly, Guy Fawkes is different to other executed Catholics, many of whom are canonised martyrs.
Fawkes is not a Saint in the Vatican sense. But he is one of anarchy and in the 21st century, nearly 500 years after his death, has turned into a revolutionary symbol of change and challenging the status quo. Every 5th of November in England, there’s a celebration of ‘bonfire night’, where the nursery rhyme is sung; a bitter reminder of the always-encroaching disorder and chaos awaiting us all.
The Mask: The Significance
The Guy Fawkes mask is just that – a mask, with opposite colours of black and white. This guarantees an anonymous presence (increasingly important in our ‘trackable’ era) and blocks others from making snap judgements based on facial characteristics. Therefore, the witness of the Guy Fawkes mask must focus on the ideas underpinning the symbol; not the wearer.
When many wear a Guy Fawkes mask at once, this blends the crowd into a powerful symbol. In the movie V For Vendetta (discussed later), the vigilante V warns that ‘ideas are bulletproof.’ Even if the masked man dies in a gutter from a gunshot, the revolutionary and anarchist ideas underpinning his death live on. Also, the Guy Fawkes mask is neither left or right, politically speaking. Shows such as Mr. Robot may align with left-wing economic thought, yet libertarians and populists have adapted the Guy Fawkes masks in lockdown protests and in support of free speech.
I’d argue the Guy Fawkes mask has a post-9/11 significance. It is a specific critique of both neoliberalism and neoconservatism, the sort resulting in the War on Terror and blunders in Anglosphere foreign policy. Therefore, the Guy Fawkes mask also represents the instability and extremism of our age, where radical solutions are sought to problems that never seem to end. This was certainly the case during the Global Financial Crisis (2008), where economic strife from the behaviour of banks and financial institutions resulted in despair. Over the next decade, there’s a rise in hacktivism and digital anarchy; where it is nearly impossible for intelligence agencies and police to put a face to these characters.
V For Vendetta
No discussion of the Guy Fawkes mask is complete without reference to Alan Moore’s graphic novel, V For Vendetta, and the film adaptation starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving in 2006. In this narrative, Britain has fallen into complete tyranny – yet in the shadows, there lurks a masked man, who challenges the government through revolution, philosophy, terrorism and anarchy. We know little about him. V is nameless. Our knowledge comes from what he represents. This is also crucial to Guy Fawkes: like V, Fawkes lacked significance and fame until his rebellion. Both V and Guy Fawkes represent the satisfaction associated with taking down tyranny and the liberation desired in our Western societies. Another interesting aspect of V is the change he provokes in others, particularly the protagonist, Evie. She, and the currently-fascist Britain, must transform into a new era, where governments fulfil V’s vision:
This is essentially, the ‘true order’ of man, where there is little need for leaders. Of course, this is ironic for Guy Fawkes. His allegiance was towards the Catholic Church, which is structured and significantly different from anarchism. Yet there’s a meaty question: What provoked Alan Moore, a far-left anarchist, to use the imagery of a Catholic, English terrorist? I’m not sure the answer. Yet it’s interesting to consider.
Journalism: The Case of Julian Assange
Masks are not required to become a political symbol.
An Australian journalist has also become a symbol against the status quo. His name is Julian Assange: the whistleblower, the prisoner and the activist. Under WikiLeaks, Assange and his team revealed top-secret information concerning American foreign policy. Currently, he is awaiting deportation to the United States, where he’ll face centuries in prison, on charges of espionage and treason. There are significant players in the Assange affair: Anglosphere powers, whether Australian, American or British, the Russian government and Edward Snowden, recently made a Russian citizen by President Vladimir Putin and the wider movement against American hegemony. Both Guy Fawkes and Julian Assange were not foreign to their respective powers. Fawkes was English; Assange, while Australian, is clearly a Westerner and part of the Anglosphere.
There have been numerous protests in support of Assange. Supporters are prone to wearing Guy Fawkes masks – for reasons illuminated by this article. Assange, like Fawkes, Anonymous, various hacktivists and V, are clearly disturbed the current status quo and seek to upend it. It’s a debate whether they are sympathetic. Unfortunately for Assange, his personality, politics, upbringing, behaviour and lifestyle is public knowledge and therefore, easier to judge, whereas our knowledge on Guy Fawkes and V is limited in comparison.
Regardless, there is little point denying the shaping force and the influence Assange has commanded.
The symbolism of Guy Fawkes informs us about modernity, political science, the state, information and the value of a mask. More than that, the Guy Fawkes mask reminds us that the status quo isn’t always here to stay, our environment can change and someone, perhaps in York, is considering the next gunfire plot.