“Little by little, one travels far” is not a J.R.R. Tolkien quote. TThnsdwohatdw, Part 2.

Little by little - not a Tolkien quote
Little by little - not a Tolkien quote

This is the second article in the on-going series Things J.R.R. Tolkien has never said, done, written or had anything to do with (TThnsdwohatdw). It should be noted that right now I could possibly write an article every single day on this when it has finally become clear that mentioning the magic world Tolkien in any tourism-related sense will make you money and people are happily doing so. However, as I still have to make a living with other things (and not via running a blog :)) I’ll have to take things slowly. Besides, with most of the allusions there is a tremendous amount of work involved (see the notorious ‘one ring’ on exhibition at the Vyne which is nonsense, of course, and the Guardian article had to be changed anyway ;)) which in most cases is not immediately discernible.

However, back to the topic at hand. What has been very successful, if not to say rampant in recent years is the tremendously high number of quotes attributed to Tolkien. Some are fairly well-known and quickly shown to actually come from one of his stories (one of the most famous being ‘not all those who wander are lost’, taken from the letter Gandalf left for Frodo at the Prancing Pony so he could introduce Aragorn to him [LotR, FotR, Strider]) but some sound strangely … odd. One of those is:

Little by little, one travels far

If you start searching for this you will quickly find some interesting results. In February of 2005 some people at rec.arts.books.tolkien started a discussion about this quote as they could not attribute it. A search in eBook versions of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit and The Silmarillion did not turn up anything, either (even if some attribute it to Gandalf.) As it is rather typical for quotes by Tolkien to be taken from his three most successful stories that is where I looked first; however, it would not be impossible, of course, for this to have been taken from another story. I have asked with one of my favourite facebook groups (none other than the Tolkien Society‘s) as the combined knowledge in this group is outstanding and I would expect there is no other place comparable to it (LotRPlaza and one or two others come to mind but with Facebook answers are quicker :)) No luck there, either, but I received a hint that put me on the right track – more on this later. And yes, there are even archeologists who give their papers the subtitle Little by little, one travels far but without giving the necessary reference. However, when I started seeing tattoos of it I was convinced I had to write this blog post – and particularly after reading this blog entry misquoting and misattributing things to Tolkien which just are not right.

According to my Google research (yes, it’s all the internet’s fault!) the first time this quote appeared was on February 7th, 2002. And if we keep in mind that The Fellowship of the Ring came into cinemas in December 2002 there might be a link. Yes, it’s the films. Again 😉 Well, there is also this guy who joined a travel web page in 2002 and then started writing copiously in 2005 who used this wrong quote. And then I did what had been hinted to me before – I switched languages. Have a look at this storyteller’s website – her favourite quote is:

Poco a poco se anda lejos. Little by little one travels far.

If you have a look at this website’s entry of August 14th, 2002, you will soon find one typical saying (and yes, it is a language learning website) and one the writer likes most. Judging from the copyright note at the bottom of the page it started in 1998 but the Wayback Web Archive started crawling this page in 2002 only. Wikiquote also lists it. Even better: I found a “Short Dictionary of Mexicanisms“, meaning Spanish proverbs supposed to have originated in Mexico (or being used there mostly) and as it has been cited at least 39 times (result from Google scholar) it quite obviously must have been read by a few people 🙂 But really it just seems to be a regular saying you learn when learning Spanish. And if even the Academia Mexicana de la Lengua has it in its lists …  The right translation would have been, though: Little by little, one goes a long way.

“Poco a poco se va lejos” is a Spanish saying that means, “Little by little one goes a long way”. I remember Senior Gordon Harrison, Spanish professor, saying that once you hear this phrase, you will never forget it. He was right on, as I have always remembered this saying and have used it and it’s meaning at appropriate times throughout my life. How true it is when going about your daily tasks—even major projects, difficulties and challenges that life presents—that you can accomplish all by taking one step at a time, “poco a poco se va lejos.” Source: Macalester College. [Gordon Harrison wrote “Learning Spanish” with Hayward Keniston.]

So “litte by little by, one goes a long way/ one travels far/ one goes far” as it is being translated into English is just a Spanish saying attributed to Tolkien. I do not know who did this and I can’t really pinpoint the timing (see above: earliest in 2002) but for now I’d say that this website from 2006 is the best shot at determining when it came ‘into being.’ Or – if she hasn’t changed the date afterwards – June 15th, 2005 by Jeanne Damoff. Or Stuart Whitehouse from the University of Exeter who listed it first on February 11th, 2006. It has become widely spread only with the recent Hobbit film so much it has become fashionable even with Tolkien’s IMDB biography where in 2013 it was added. As this can be seen on other pages as well (2006 not a Tolkien quote, 2012 it is) I would assume that somebody came up with the attribution following the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and with the recently rekindled interest it was spread much more quickly than it could have been in 2005/2006. And if I should really give this guess a try I would say that this blogger got this quote from Quotations Page where it came online via Laura Moncur’s weblog (and even in 2005 nobody could find the origin to the quote – on that website’s forum!)

So unless somebody is able to cough up a proper reference to this in any of Tolkien’s writings (published or unpublished) Little by little, one travels far is not a Tolkien quote but a misattributed Spanish saying translated into English.

Oh – and if you don’t think this is about making money? Have a look at a Google image search on this – and buy shirts, wallpapers, prints etc.

Update April 25th, 2013. Thanks to a comment from Igor Ayala I can provide another link with more background information on the source of the Spanish quote. Thanks to the online database of the Instituto Cervantes it can be said this is not an especially Mexican but a more generally Spanish quote though rather rare in its usage.



Marcel R. Bülles

Marcel R. Bülles is the author of thetolkienist.com, a specialist blog centering on worldwide Tolkien fandom, geekdom and research. He works as a freelance translator, journalist and writer and is the founder of the German Tolkien Society as well as a co-founder to RingCon, Europe's formerly biggest fantasy film convention. You can find him in cafés all over the world sipping an espresso blogging, writing, reading. At one point he was married to an extremely lovely French lady by the nickname of Sauron. Yes, that Sauron. He is also active with the International Tolkien Fellowship on Facebook and the Tolkien Folk on Instagram.