On Gont, an island in the fictional Earthsea archipelago, a young boy named Duny begins to discover his powers as a mage when he copies a spoken charm his aunt, a witch and herbalist, to control a local herd of goat. Duny’s aunt notices his facility with spells and takes him under her wing as prentice. When pale-skinned invaders from the Kargad Empire threaten the island of Gont, Duny uses his skills with fogweaving to create a thick, impenetrable mist and shield his village from the marauding Karg forces. The act is the greatest work of magic Duny has ever done, and it leaves him exhausted and spent.
The incident, however, draws the attention of a local mage named Ogion who comes to Duny’s village to ask permission to take on Duny as a prentice. Duny excitedly goes with the wise Ogion. After being given the true name Ged—and the public name Sparrowhawk—Duny travels across the island of Gont to the village of Re Albi with his new master. The young Ged, however, soon finds himself frustrated with Ogion’s refusal to use magic to accomplish everyday tasks. Ged wants to learn as much as he can as fast as he can, and he sees Ogion’s slow-paced coaching as a burden. When a local village girl entreats Ged to cast a spell beyond his knowledge, Ged turns to one of Ogion’s ancient rune books—and nearly unleashes a dark, terrible force by reciting an old spell aloud. Ogion intervenes just in time, but the man senses his student’s power and frustration in equal measure. Ogion urges Ged to travel to the prestigious School for wizards on the Isle of Roke—the school where Ogion himself studied—but to beware of the blind pursuit of power.
Ged arrives at the School on Roke and finds himself immersed in a world of riddles, tests, and illusions. He meets the Archmage Nemmerle, a very old wizard and head mage of the school. Ged meets his new classmates, including the pompous braggart Jasper and the kind, quiet Vetch. Jasper and Vetch eagerly show off their skills with illusions. Ged begins to fear he has made the wrong choice in coming to Roke, yet as his classes begin, he dedicates himself to his studies and begins to realize he is a skilled mage-in-training. As the nine Masters of Roke instruct Ged and his classmates in the arts of illusion, herbalism, summoning, and runes, they warn the pupils to understand the delicate balance sustaining the universe—and the ways in which magic, when used for ill means, can disturb and corrupt that balance.
Ged adopts a pet, an otak—similar to a small fox—and deepens his friendship with Vetch, even as his rivalry with Jasper worsens. Eventually, things come to a head as Ged, fed up with Jasper’s taunts, challenges the other boy to a duel. They retreat from school and head up to a grassy knoll, where Jasper dares Ged to summon a spirit from the land of the dead. Ged tries to do so—but instead calls forth a terrible black shadow which attacks him, leaving Ged covered in horrible wounds. Nemmerle arrives and chases the shadow off with a swell of light. The other Masters help bring Ged back to the Master Herbalist’s chambers to begin a long, arduous healing process—Nemmerle, meanwhile, exhausted by the effort of driving away the shadow, passes. A new Archmage, Gensher, is appointed. Ged spends months recuperating. When he returns to his classes, he is covered in white scars and his classmates hardly recognize him. Archmage Gensher encourages Ged to continue his studies—Ged will need to learn everything he can, Gensher says, to fight the shadow he has brought into the world, for it certainly awaits him somewhere. Ged studies hard and slowly returns to weaving spells and enchantments. Vetch, who has earned his wizard’s staff and is returning home to the East Reach, tells Ged his true name: Estarriol. Ged searches for information about the shadow in old books of lore, but he cannot find anything useful. When it is time for Ged to leave the school on Roke, he passes one final test from the Master Doorkeeper and sets out for a humble but necessary post as a wizard on the isle of Low Toring—which is under threat from a cluster of dragons who live on the nearby island of Pendor.
On Low Torning, Ged attends to the everyday needs of his fellow villagers. It’s not the glorious adventure he expected—but after failing to save his new friend Pechvarry’s young son from a deadly fever, Ged begins feeling the presence of the shadow once more. Knowing he must save the residents of Low Torning from the dragons so that he can depart and outrun the shadow, he travels to Pendor and confronts the fearsome dragon Yevaud. By speaking Yevaud’s true name aloud, Ged is able to bind the dragon to Pendor forever, ensuring that Low Torning will be safe. Ged returns to the isle with the good news, and he knows it is time to move on.
Ged tries to return to Roke, but an enchantment keeps him from reaching the island. While staying the night on a nearby isle, Ged encounters a stranger who seems to know him. The stranger urges Ged to go north to the land of Osskil and the Court of Terrenon—there, Ged will learn how to fight back against his shadow. Ged returns to the harbor and seeks passage to Osskil. He signs up as an oarsmen on a longboat, and, during the arduous journey north, meets an Osskilian named Skiorh who frightens him. Nevertheless, when the ship arrives in Osskil, Ged accepts Skiorh’s offer to lead him to the Court of Terrenon. On the way, however, Skiorh begins behaving oddly. When Ged forces Skiroh to turn and face him, Skiorh’s hood is empty—yet it begins fighting him. Ged realizes that Skiorh has become a gebbeth, or puppet, of the shadow. Ged escapes the shadow’s clutches by seeking refuge behind a glowing castle rampart, but he loses consciousness as the gates close between him and the gebbeth.
Ged awakes in the luxe Court of Terrenon. A woman, Serret, introduces herself as the Lady of the court—her husband, Benderesk, is a man several times her age. Serret, hungry for company, strikes up a friendship with Ged, though he does not recognize her as the village girl he once knew on Gont. Serret soon tries to lure him toward the founding-stone of the castle: the powerful stone of Terrenon. The stone is kept in a dark, remote room under three separate locks. As soon as Ged spots the stone, he senses a terrible power coming from it and refuses to touch it or speak to it. Serret, however, tries to get Ged to want the stone’s power—she even offers to rule alongside him once he becomes true master of the stone. When Ged refuses a second time—in front of Benderesk—Benderesk transforms Serret into a horrible creature and unleashes his Servants of the Stone to pursue her and Ged from the castle. In the courtyard, Ged finds the frozen corpse of his otak companion. Serret changes herself into a bird and tries to fly away. Ged follows suit, turning himself into a hawk. He flies out to sea, where Osskilian magic has no power over him.
Soon, he arrives back on Gont, still in hawk-form. He flies straight to the arm of his former master, Ogion, and Ogion helps Ged find his way back to his human form. Ogion shelters Ged for several days as Ged returns to health. Ged tells Ogion about all the trouble he’s had since resigning as Ogion’s prentice—but Ogion points out how much good Ged has done, too. Ogion builds Ged a new staff and tells Ged that running from the shadow will do him no good: he needs to turn the hunter into the hunted. After his new staff is complete, Ged commandeers a small boat, hoping that if he meets the shadow over the sea, he will be stronger against it than he has been on land. When Ged calls out for the shadow, the shadow flies across the waves. When Ged sails at it, however, the shadow turns and flees. A wild chase commences, and the shadow tricks Ged into running aground on a remote sandbar. Ged finds two people living there: an elderly man and woman who do not speak his tongue, and whom he begins to believe are Kargish royalty living in exile. After repairing his boat, Ged takes to the seas again. He soon encounters the shadow again—this time, it appears in the back of his boat. Ged grabs at the shadow, yet he is unable to take hold of it. The shadow flees the encounter, yet Ged feels something has changed—now, he is the hunter.
Ged continues pursuing the shadow across the sea, stopping on small islands to replenish his supplies and rest. On one island, he is turned away when the villagers report that a man who looked like Ged arrived several days ago. On the island of Iffish, Ged is walking the streets in solitude when he comes upon his old friend Vetch. Vetch and Ged embrace joyously, and Vetch invites Ged to come rest at his house. Vetch’s younger sister, Yarrow, is just a few years younger than Ged, and the two get along well. Ged fills Vetch in on what he has been battling ever since leaving Roke and explains that he plans to track the shadow to the ends of the earth to face it. Vetch offers to come along—someone, he says, needs to bear witness to Ged’s great, final encounter with the beast. As Vetch and Ged strategize about how Ged might best the shadow, Ged says he knows he must find out the creature’s true name.
Vetch and Ged set out, traveling southward on a long journey past the last known island in the archipelago. Out on the open water, very far south of the last sight of land, the ship suddenly runs aground. Ged alone can see the sand and the reef—Vetch is unable to see anything but water all around. Ged spots the shadow in the distance—it assumes the shape of his father, then Jasper, then Pechvarry, and then a semblance of Ged himself before returning to its shadow form. Ged speaks the shadow’s true name aloud: Ged. As Ged grabs hold of his shadow-self, there is an explosion of light and darkness. The land dissolves and Vetch pulls Ged from the waves. Ged is exhausted but exhilarated—he tells Vetch that he finally feels “whole.” Vetch and Ged sail home to the East Reach, where Yarrow greets them happily.
In a brief epilogue, the narrator reveals that in all of the great songs and deeds that will be sung about Ged’s many adventures in the years to come—long after he ascends to Archamge of the entire Archipelago—not a one will mention his encounter with the shadow.