Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy: Themes, King Arthur and Clichés

I used to think fantasy started with Tolkien, but now I realize it originated with King Arthur.

The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy talks about the origins of fantasy. It mentions the Romantic Tradition and King Arthur.

The story of King Arthur involves:

1) Commoner who is really a king

2) Old Wizard who guides the hero

3) Enchanted sword or other artifact of magic

4) A quest for a relic, sometimes a vessel, with powers on a godlike scale

5) Diverse companions

I am positively stunned. I never realized this before. Everyone knows the story of King Arthur. Who has not read The Once and Future King by TH White? And even if you haven’t, most people still know the story!

King Arthur predates Tolkien, but it has nearly every fantasy clichés and archetype. I can’t even begin to count the number of stories that have all those things.

David Eddings, of course. Tolkien. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin. Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordon. Riddle-Master  by Patricia A. McKillip.  I am sure there are lots and lots of others I can’t think of right now.

Harry Potter, even. He isn’t a king, but he is a famous commoner. Dumbledore Old Wizard who guides the hero. Every book has an artifact and a quest, and friends to help him!

But despite all that, Harry Potter is nothing like King Arthur or Tolkien. The worlds could not be more different.

So do these surface similarities matter?  Are they really clichés that are better not repeated? Or themes on which you can have endless varieties?

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6 thoughts on “Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy: Themes, King Arthur and Clichés

  1. Is it just me who looks at these five points and instantly think of an even older story/book?

    I really don’t know if these theories really have all that much of a point. Some of the points are rather vague.
    Diverse companions? The vast majority of stories ever told – not just classic fantasy – include a diverse cast of supporting characters to help out the “hero”. A hero completely on their own is difficult to pull off and a group of non-diverse companions would simply be boring.
    A quest for something grand? Oh, as opposed to all those stories about people sitting at home or on a quest for something unimportant?

    I think some of these are less fantasy genre cliches and more regular story telling devices. Even the commoner/king thing. The “underdog born unto greatness” is not just a favourite only to fantasy writers.

    And if you break it down even further: “boy meets girl and hilarity/tragedy ensues” was old long before Romeo & Juliet. But it still works to this day. There is, after all, only a limited number of themes we can work with. And that is what they are, themes.

    • I think the point is to point out things that might be overdone. And yeah, most stories that do stuff like that were not written in the last 10-15 years, but before that. But that’s because urban fantasy become popular about than and now it has overtaken the market completely.

      I have to agree about the diverse companions companions bit. Except when it gets almost stylized – the thief, the barbarian, like that. Though that is also a result of cardboard characters . . .

  2. Very true.
    It also follows Joseph Campell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces.
    The Old Man + Magical Artifacts.
    It is an incredible repercussion: a tale that has been passed down for generations.

  3. i was really inspired by King Arthur 2004 movie since i watched it for “English, american lit.” subject..
    i just realized it now– its similarity to harry potter..

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