Al Kags

Guy, Remember the Fifth of November


Digital Essay
Nairobi, Kenya

“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot, I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason be forgot. but what of the man? I know his name was Guy Fawkes and i know that in 1605 he intended to blow up the houses of Parliament, but who was he really? What was he like? We’re told to remember the idea not the man for the man can fail, he can be caught, he can be killed and forgoten, but 400 years later, the idea can still shape the world…”

So begins the movie, V for vendetta, one that I was reluctant to watch but that now has come to the fore of the MUST WATCH list of movies in my view. It is a movie about an idea, one that must be protected at all costs.

But some history first. From the Dictionary of Historical Allusions and Eponyms by Auchter I learn the following:

In English slang as we speak it today, the word GUY has been completely severed from its origins, which were somewhat sinister. It derives from Guy Fawkes (1570-1606), an English Catholic living in an age when being Catholic was hazardous to one’s health. Fawke’s religious zeal prompted him to leave England and seek adventure on the Continent, where he joined the Spanish army and fought against Protestants in the Netherlands.

Meanwhile in England, James I took the throne, amid hopes from English Catholics that he would rescind some of the more punitive anti-Catholic legislation. Parliament as a whole did not share the king’s interest in greater religious toleration. Since Parliament held the purse strings, James, who was always in desperate need of funds, was forced to compromise his ideals. The maxim that fanatic persecution breeds fanatic retaliation proved to be true, and in 1605 a group of militant Catholics devised a scheme to assassinate the king, the queen, and the entire Parliament. The conspirators felt that they needed a man with military training to mastermind the plan, and Guy Fawkes was persuaded to return to England to assist the plotters. The idea was to pack a tunnel underneath Parliament with gunpowder and ignite it on November 5 1605, when the king was scheduled to open Parliament. Most of the important Protestant leaders of the country would be present at this grand ceremony. On the eve of the scheduled day the tunnel was loaded with 36 barrels of gunpowder, with Fawkes standing guard.

One of the conspirators, Francis Tresham, had warned his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, not to attend Parliament on November 5, and Monteagle had relayed the information to the authorities. At 2:00 A.M., Fawkes was arrested. Under torture he revealed the names of his fellow conspirators, all of whom were arrested and sentenced to death. Public outrage over the attempt on the king’s life, combined with anti-Catholic hysteria, guaranteed that the execution of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators would draw huge crowds. Grotesque effigies of Guy Fawkes were paraded through the streets and ritualistically tortured and burned. The condemned suffered the traditional death of traitors: they were carried through the streets, hanged, cut down while still living, disemboweled, and quartered.

Parliament subsequently declared November 5 “a holiday forever in thankfulness to God for our deliverance and detestation of the Papists.” It is still celebrated in England, and grotesquely garbed effigies are burned in conjunction with a huge fireworks display. Other effigies of unpopular persons have been traditionally displayed during Guy Fawkes Day, and by extension they were also called ‘guys.’ In England, the word ‘guy’ gradually came to mean any man of gaudy, obnoxious appearance. By the 1840s the word had crossed the Atlantic to the United States, but it then lost its negative association.

According to wikipedia, Papists is a term that is today used to refer to Roman Catholics. It was coined during the English Reformation to indicate one who believed in Papal primacy over all Christians and was popular Anglican slur.

That notion made me sit up.

Is this to say that to date, children go up and down streets for days before November the fifth, asking for money for them to buy fireworks, so that the Nation of England can celebrate a day on which their Parliament was delivered from destruction by Papists, who seeked religious tolerance, and that they commemorate every year their detestation of Roman Catholics?

Are the English people aware of this?

Well, back to the movie at hand – V for Vendetta. The movie is based in England and it seems to be about some important perspectives. Here’s a quote that for me the whole movie is about:

“…while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning and for those who will listen the enunciation of truth…”

Then the speaker, V, remembers the guy, the original guy, Guy Fawkes.

“More than four hundred years ago, a great citizen seeked to embed the fifth of November forever in out memory. His hope was to remind the world that fairness, justice and freedom are more than words. They are perspectives.”

Can more be said?

Watch the movie. Lets talk. Remember the original reason for November 5th in England everytime you say the word Guy, though. Religious Tolerance and Fairness and Justice are not mere notions to be discussed on blogs and television and political podiums. They are necessities to life.

1 thought on “Guy, Remember the Fifth of November”

  1. I like history, above all I love well told history… here I was thinking V for Vendetta is some flick… hmmmm… I’ll watch the movie and get back to you.

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