Friday, November 05, 2010

Treason & Plot

"Remember, remember,
The Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Ever should be forgot."

As has been my tradition for the past few years, I celebrated Guy Fawkes Night this year by re-watching the movie V for Vendetta. It's been a favorite of mine since I first saw it in the theater, and its anti-tyranny message has made it very popular in some quarters.

It's interesting, though, that for many of the centuries since the original Guy Fawkes was captured in 1605, he wasn't considered the hero he, as well as his contemporary counterpart V, are today. In fact, the reason that the fifth of November was originally celebrated is because Fawkes failed to blow up "the King and Parliament", as the poem continues. It seems to be a relatively recent shift in celebrating not the failure of the attempt, but the man making it.

However, the perception of Fawkes and V as lone rebels against an unsympathetic government, no matter how romantic, deserves a bit of a closer look. Not only because it's not quite true (Fawkes was only one of about a dozen conspirators, and far from the mastermind at that), but because their actions could be, and have been (and not without some merit) labeled as terrorism. V for Vendetta, of course, makes this explicit - and yet we still sympathize with V over the Norsefire government, because the latter is such an overtly repressive, authoritarian regime.

Guy Fawkes' situation is a little more complex. He was a Catholic in a time and place where that religion was unacceptable, but slowly becoming less so. Too slowly, unfortunately, for the conspirators' tastes, hence the Plot. And yet, the plan to install a Catholic monarch over 17th-century England doesn't exactly mesh with the anti-authoritarian symbol he's become.

And what of the charges of terrorism? "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" is somewhat trite, but in some situations it may be true. Of course, neither V's actions (if he didn't intended to terrify people, does it count as terrorism?) nor Fawkes' (as I mentioned, religious toleration for Catholics was slowly growing in England right up until he got caught under Parliament with a barrel of gunpowder) truly fit those circumstances.

In the end, I think what really drives the current popularity of Guy Fawkes Night is, again, the idea of one man standing against injustice. In today's world it often seems like individuals can't make a difference, but as a wise man once said, "in every revolution, there's one man with a vision" - and the courageousness (if not the methods) of Guy and V will be there for the inspiration as long as we remember, remember the Fifth of November.

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