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

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.

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.




A Tolkien fan for twenty-five years (and more to come...) Founding chairman of the German Tolkien Society, Co-Founder of Ring*Con, Co-Founder of the ITF, host, presenter and fantasy expert

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  • TroelsForchhammer

    Thank you, Marcel! Unfortunately we can come up with loads of examples, including quotations that originate in a Tolkien context or quotations that get twisted and corrupted so that they come to mean something entirely different from what the meaning is in the context in which Tolkien set them.

    An example of a misattributed quotation originating in a Tolkien context is “A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities” which originated as part of the advertising copy written for the 1978 Bakshi film, and is about Tolkien, but certainly not by Tolkien.

    As example of the corruption of a quotation by Tolkien, I’ll mention “You can only come to morning through the shadows” which is a perversion of a statement in The Lord of the Rings from book IV, near the end of chapter 2 ‘The Passage of the Marshes’ when Gollum, Frodo and Sam have reached the desolation before Mordor and stand there looking out across it: “For a while they stood there, like men on the edge of a sleep where nightmare lurks, holding it off, though they know that they can only come to morning through the shadows.” A completely different meaning is given to the words here!

    The worst part is that these things spread like a wild-fire, and it takes a tremendous effort to refute them. But having a place where such solidly evidence-based refutations can be put on-line and shared is boon.

    • Thank you, Troels, this was definitely one of the main reasons for me to start this blog. We’ll have a lot to do and very often things won’t work out easily but “little by little, one travels far.” 😉

  • Mikey Baggins

    I find this blog odd. It’s almost as if the meaning for it is to simply point fingers at people and say they’ve been using the quote wrong. But why?
    You only wanted to strongly look into this once you saw people with tattoos of the quote. And you found no convincing evidence either. Just suggestions as to where it came from. So really, you’re no closer to finding it out than anyone.

    • Hi Mikey, thanks very much for commenting on my blog post. Now, I have to make clear that I did not need any tattoo to convince me to write a post like this; maybe the humour wasn’t quite obvious but I don’t mind tattoos at all as long as there actually is a connection to Tolkien.

      I do not need to find any evidence as a quote supposedly from Tolkien which is not taken from either “The Hobbit”, “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Silmarillion” will in all probability not be a Tolkien quote [and those texts I have checked.] I have tried to show that _any_ reference to this quote is _without_ any reference to a Tolkien text whatsoever. Give it a try yourself, there is no proof of any link between this and Tolkien at all anywhere (on the web, I agree but if there were a link between a published text and this quote it would have been made clear at some point in time.)

      Anyone claiming a Tolkien quote should have a reference for this. Nobody making money of “Little by little, one travels far” has any such reference. If I am mistaken I am quite happy to say so – but until then my assumption will hold: It is a (rather bad) translation of a Spanish/Mexican saying attributed wrongly to Tolkien.

  • Igor Ayala

    Thank you very mouch from Mexico. Just a detail: the quote is not exclusive from Mexican spanish, but is typical of all spanish and there is record:
    In my country we prefer: “poco a poquito se llena el jarrito”, where “poquito” means “little little” or “few few” (yes, it’s seems like a nonsense), and “jarrito” a kind of little cup or pitcher. That is, “little by little little, the ‘jarrito’ is filled.” Figuratively, it means the same that you quote. Or we only say: “poco a poquito” or “paso a pasito” (step by little step, literally).
    Whatever, thanks, again, for to clarify this fake Tolkien’s quote.

    • Muchas gracias de Alemania! This is a huge help for this article and I am very glad that you left this comment. I will update article with the link you mentioned.

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  • Kris

    When I was a girl my piano teacher used to always tell me that phrase (Poco a poco se anda lejos) when I was frustrated with trying to learn a new piece of music. It has stayed with me my entire life and helped me gain perspective in many overwhelming situations.

    • Thanks for sharing this, Kris!

      It does sound like a wonderful saying, indeed, and I suppose there are comparable sayings in a given language whenever patience is desperately needed 🙂 I do seem to remember my grandma offering me her fair share of advice on my patience *g*

      Having said that, Tolkien had his own, rather huge set of Hobbit sayings (and more). People should quote him properly, that’s the point of this particular exercise!

  • Jen

    I wish I had read this blog earlier! I erroneously used the dream/1000 realities quote recently and was just about to use the little by little one. I hate that there is so much misinformation on the web.

  • Amy B.

    Whenever it started, this goes back earlier than 2005. This was printed on a Tolkien poster that I had hanging in my bedroom when I started high school in 2000. Maybe it originated with promotional materials for the movies?

    • This might very well be – but I only have some promotional material issued in Germany so … If you ever happen to come across such materials, I’d be happy to update this article!

      • Amy B.

        I don’t have the poster anymore, unfortunately! But I did include it as my senior quote, attributed to Tolkien, in my high school yearbook in 2004. Whoops. Oh well – love the sentiment, no matter.