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?