Hall of Fame finalist review: “The Trees,” a fantasy-themed rock song by Rush, resonates as cautionary tale

By Michael Grossberg

Even though they’re eligible for nomination, no songs have ever been inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame.

Neal Peart, Rush drummer and songwriter of “The Trees.” Credit: Creative Commons

I can’t imagine a good song more deserving of that honor, and that fits the distinctive focus of the Prometheus Awards better, than “The Trees,” a 1978 song by the Canadian rock group Rush.

Recorded as part of the group’s 1978 album “Hemispheres” and inspired by Dr. Seuss’s fantastical tale of The Lorax, according to an online annotated list of Rush songs, “The Trees” clearly fits our awards.

Propelled by a melodic but mournful progressive-rock sound evoking a ballad or elegy, the song has been selected by Prometheus Hall of Fame finalist judges among this year’s four Best Classic Fiction finalists.

WHY “THE TREES” FITS AS SF/FANTASY

Written by Neil Peart with music by Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson, “The Trees” first of all falls within the broad category of speculative fiction, including science fiction and fantasy.

The song conjures a world in which trees are intelligent and emotional creatures that we can recognize as very much like ourselves – part of a social and hierarchical community, capable of nobility, but also subject to internal conflicts and the very human weaknesses of envy and malice.

With just a few deft strokes of fantastical but plausible world-building and in remarkably few words, Rush songwriter Neil Peart sets up the imaginative premise of its story while introducing its characters and their central dramatic conflict:

“There is unrest in the forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their pleas…”

Now imagine if you read a full-fledged novel or novella that imagines a similar future, perhaps on an alien planet where the plants and trees had evolved to full human-level sentience and self-awareness.

Wouldn’t that story obviously fall into the sf/fantasy category? Of course it would; yet, somehow, we tend not to categorize and recognize songs as easily when they fall within the sf/fantasy genre.

HOW “THE TREES” DEVELOPS ITS LIBERTARIAN THEME

Let’s further imagine that such a fantasy or science-fiction story revolves around a central conflict in which some tree creatures simply wish to peacefully exercise their rights to life and liberty, free from aggression or destruction by others.

Yet, other trees refuse to let them alone. Instead, these other shorter trees, motivated in part by envy or malice or a warped sense of “social justice,” threaten to violate such basic libertarian rights.

The shorter trees plot to impose a radical dictatorship that would cut down – even kill – the taller trees, all in the name of a deranged, coercive and radical egalitarianism.

Sound familiar? It should.

When that perennial libertarian and anti-authoritarian theme surfaces in a novel (such as Lionel Shriver’s recently published Mania) or even in a classic novella or story, such as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron,” we don’t have any trouble recognizing it via the Prometheus Awards. (Vonnegut’s story was inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame in 2019.)

Yet, within the even more compressed and concise format of lyrics to a song, are such themes, so elegantly dramatized, any less worthy of Prometheus Awards recognition?

Rush in performance (Creative Commons license)

THE SONG’S ARTISTRY AND RELEVANCE

As the sf/fantasy scenario unfolds in the eloquent lyrics to “The Trees,” the artistry of Rush and the song’s relevance to Prometheus Award themes couldn’t be clearer:

“The trouble with the maples
And they’re quite convinced they’re right
They say the oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light…

“…There is trouble in the forest
And the creatures all have fled
As the maples scream ‘oppression!’
And the oaks, just shake their heads

“So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
‘The oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light’

HOW THE SONG IS ROOTED IN HISTORY

Back in the real world of human beings right here on Earth, history suggests that such scenarios rarely end well.

After all, to quote a common catchphrase, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And when self-righteous zealots, convinced of their goodness and moral purity, demonize the Other, stigmatize those they fear and view those not within their “tribe” as evil and even subhuman, normal civilized restraints are eviscerated.

George Orwell understood this well, and warned us of the consequences in both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, two of the most important works inducted over the decades into the Prometheus Hall of Fame.

From the Reign of Terror in 1790s France to Lenin’s concentration camps and Stalin’s Ukraine famine killing millions during the Communist regime of the Soviet Union to the rise of Adolf Hitler’s German National Socialist Workers Party (better known as the abbreviated “Nazi” party) in the 1920s and 1930s, seductive but false ideologies of collectivism and statism have unleashed mass murder, torture, tyranny, oppression and scapegoating of minorities, and world war, time after tragic time.

That’s why I find the sad, rueful ending of “The Trees” to be so haunting:

“Now there’s no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet,
Axe,
And saw.”

Like Hans Christian Andersen’s enduring anti-authoritarian fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the first non-novel inducted into the Prometheus Hall of Fame (in 2000), Rush’s “The Trees” offers a powerful cautionary tale that continues to resonate today.

* Check out Rush performing “The Trees” on Youtube.

 

UPCOMING REVIEWS PLANNED FOR HALL OF FAME FINALISTS

Stay tuned, because the Prometheus Blog aims to publish reviews of all four 2024 finalists in the Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

Besides “The Trees,” the other Hall of Fame finalists are Orion Shall Rise, a 1983 novel by Poul Anderson; The Truth, a 2000 novel by Terry Pratchett; and Between the Rivers, a 1998 novel by Harry Turtledove.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT THE PROMETHEUS AWARDS:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – including the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series explaining why each of more than 100 past winners since 1979 fits the awards’ distinctive dual focus on both quality and liberty.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,”an essay in the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the evolution of the modern genre.

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt),Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

* Check out the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Facebook page  for comments, updates and links to Prometheus Blog posts.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction,  jointhe Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital in envisioning a freer and better future – and in some ways can be even more powerful than politics in the long run, by imagining better visions of the future incorporating peace, prosperity, progress, tolerance, justice, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

One thought on “Hall of Fame finalist review: “The Trees,” a fantasy-themed rock song by Rush, resonates as cautionary tale”

  1. I would class both Animal Farm and “The Trees” as examples of the venerable genre of beast fable, which goes back to Aesop and Buddha at least.

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