Brits, Americans celebrate Guy Fawkes Day

If there is a face of anarchy, it’s that of Guy Fawkes. His face is so notorious that it is commonly symbolized, ironically, in the form of an identity-concealing mask.

Fawkes was an English Catholic who is immortalized annually on Nov. 5, a date identified by his namesake. Guy Fawkes Day marks his plot in 1605 to eliminate the entire British Parliament in one fell swoop. He was popularized by the 2005 movie “V for Vendetta,” where V, the character based on Fawkes, always wore a smug, musketeer-style mustachioed mask that came to embody his revolutionary persona.

As the history goes, Fawkes and a group of four other conspirators planted a sizeable stash of gunpowder — at least 20 barrels — beneath the British Parliament building when government officials were present, including King James I, the Protestant king at the time. Fawkes’ plan was to detonate the gunpowder and eliminate the nation’s rulers, bringing the country into a new era of Catholicism.

Walter Arnstein, professor emeritus of history who specializes in 19th and 20th century-era Great Britain, said Fawkes was originally a Protestant but converted to Catholicism and became very passionate.

“It was at that time (in Britain) the Protestant/Catholic element was a central story,” Arnstein said.

What became known as the Gunpowder Plot did not succeed. Just hours before the explosion was set to take place, officials located the gunpowder and captured Fawkes and his cohorts.

He was later tried for treason, found guilty and executed brutally for his crimes.

Coming from such a dark history, why is this religious and political extremist still remembered? For the same reason that any nation remembers a disaster like this: so he can serve as an example of what happens when someone tries to go against the government so starkly.

Dan Chappell, sophomore in FAA, is an international student from Great Britain. He has taken part in many festivities surrounding Guy Fawkes Day — also known as Bonfire Night — throughout his life. He recited the common British nursery rhyme affiliated with Fawkes:

“(Remember,) remember, the 5th of November. / Gunpowder, treason and plot. / I see no reason why gunpowder treason / should ever be forgot.”

The rhyme goes on after these first lines, continuing to explain the story of Nov. 5.

“In Britain, more people will be aware that this is really meant to be a nationalist holiday celebrating the unraveling of Fawkes’ plot,” said Feisal Mohamed, English professor specializing in 17th Century British literature.

Even though the holiday is named after Fawkes, Guy Fawkes Day in Great Britain is all about dishonoring Fawkes and celebrating his failure.

“On Bonfire Night ... you would build a bonfire and then have an effigy of Guy Fawkes, use old clothes, like a scarecrow,” Chappell said. “Then you would actually burn this figure on the bonfire, so it’s kind of rejecting Guy Fawkes.”

There are fireworks and nationwide celebrations on Bonfire Night. It’s a night of fun for families and children, comparable to the Fourth of July or Halloween in the United States.

“And so it gradually — certainly by the time of the 20th Century — it largely ceased to be primarily a religious affair,” Arnstein said. “It became almost a kind of a children’s memory.”

The details have become watered down since 1605, and Guy Fawkes Day has lost its historical element. Children are taught a tamer version in British elementary schools, and the Gunpowder Plot has become more of a “lighthearted” tale, Chappell said.

“People got further and further away from the actual history,” Mohamed said. “People kind of forgot what it was really about and were able to sort of project these later values onto November 5th.”

This is especially pertinent in the U.S. Instead of celebrating the downfall of Fawkes, Americans celebrate his attempt at challenging the powers in place, both Mohamed and Chappell said.

“On this side of the Atlantic, we’re less attached to British government and celebrate a revolutionary moment when this country broke away from British government,” Mohamed continued. “Fawkes can be celebrated.”

The American spirit has come to stand for independence and freedom, which some people could believe is symbolized by Fawkes’ rebellious 1605 plot.

The movie “V for Vendetta” is a theatrical, futuristic version of the Gunpowder Plot, with key parallels to the actual historic event.

The film stars Natalie Portman, with Hugo Weaving as V. The character V is portrayed as a “freedom fighter,” one who wanted revenge on those who wronged him.

He forms an alliance with Evey Hammond, Portman’s character, to carry out his vengeance-filled scheme.

“I think that Hollywood has definitely glorified Fawkes, who was not someone operating out of noble principles,” Mohamed said. “I think (the movie’s hype) has made Fawkes into more of a hero than any student of history would think.”

The mask of Guy Fawkes is also often used by hacktivist group Anonymous, which has defaced multiple websites in honor of the holiday. On the morning of Nov. 4, the group ravished the NBC website, featuring the Nov. 5 poem, loud music and a dark, starry screen. The NBC site was restored by 6 p.m. Sunday. They used the same defacement on Daily Gaga, a Lady Gaga fan site.

As of today, Fawkes’ story has fluctuated significantly throughout the course of time. It went from a religious conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism in Great Britain to an English night of celebration to an American symbol of revolution. Because the Gunpowder Plot took place more than four centuries ago, details have been cast away, storytelling has taken over, and Fawkes means something different to everyone, depending on which side of the Atlantic they are on.

Whether the holiday is commemorated today with fireworks and sparklers or a mask and a cape, all of these themes have come to represent the rebellious extremist that was Guy Fawkes.

Reema can be reached at abiakar2@dailyillini.com.