Ged, also known as Sparrowhawk, is a young wizard from the Island of Gont who has come to the Roke School of Magic. He has the potential to become a great mage, but foolish pride and envy has spurred him to attempt a dangerous feat of magic: summoning a spirit of the dead. The attempt ripped open the fabric of reality allowing a dark creature of evil, a living shadow, to enter the world of the living. This is what is known in thaumatological terms as a Problem.
Ged survives the attack by the shadow creature, although it is some months before he fully recovers. The student who once surpassed all his peers is now behind them all in his studies and he has lost his confidence. He wants to learn how to undo the evil he has unleashed but even the Archmage himself, who drove off the creature at the cost of his life, was unable to do that.
The new Archmage warns Ged that he will need to gain strength and wisdom to defend himself, for surely the evil shadow will seek to possess him and make him a gebbeth, a puppet doing the creature's evil will.
"You have great power inborn in you, and you used that power wrongly, to work a spell over which you had no control, not knowing how that spell affects the balance of light and dark, life and death, good and evil. And you were moved to do this by pride and by hate. Is it any wonder the result was ruin? You summoned a spirit from the dead, but with it came one of the Powers of unlife. Uncalled it came from a place where there are no names. Evil, it wills to work evil through you. The power you had to call it gives it power over you: you are connected. It is the shadow of your arrogance, the shadow of your ignorance, the shadow you cast. Has a shadow a name?"This dismays Ged, because the magic he knows is largely based on knowing the names of things. How can he work magic against a thing which has no name?
He gets a visit from his friend, Vetch, now a fully-ranked mage with a staff and everything. Vetch has taken care of Hoek, Ged's pet ferret -- sorry, his pet otak -- during his convalescence. He offers Ged words of encouragement and invites him to come to his home in the East Reach. Vetch also shares with Ged his true name, Estarriol; an act of supreme trust, fur by speaking a person's true name a wizard can conjure him. True names are usually shared only with very close family members and friends, which is why most people know Ged as Sparrowhawk. Ged reciprocates by telling Estarriol his own true name.
Ged finally completes his own training. The Archmage sends him to a distant post where, with luck, the Shadow will have difficulty finding him. Normally, graduates of the Roke School can expect to be placed in noble courts and important cities, but Ged is just as happy to be sent someplace small and out of the way.
Many years ago, the Island of Pendor far to the west had been wiped out by a dragon, who made the isle his habitation. Since then the Dragon of Pendor has been content to remain there, but fishermen from the islets nearest to Pendor have recently seen more dragons, young ones, flying over the adjacent waters. They fear these new dragons will attack their homes and so have petitioned the Archmage of Roke to send them a wizard to protect them.
Ged is happy with his new assignment. The community of islanders is poor and they can offer but humble lodgings, but no worse than his home growing up on Gont. He makes friends with a boatmaker named Pechvarry, and works with him building fishing boats. Pechvarry teaches Ged about the craft of boat-building, and in return Ged places enchantments on his boats to enchance their seaworthiness.
Then one day, Pechvarry's son falls ill, and he calls in Ged to heal the boy. Ged quickly sees that the boy is dying. Since the disaster on Roke unleashing the Shadow, Ged has been cautious about using his magic, but to save the son of his friend, he tries to follow the dying boy's spirit to bring it back into the land of the living.
Ged is breaking protocol with this. One of the essential lessons the Master Healer of Roke drummed into his students was "Heal the wound and cure the illness, but let the dying spirit go." Still, Ged makes the attempt.
The boy, alas, is too far gone; and in following his spirit, Ged finds himself in the Land of the Dead. Making his way back to the living world, Ged sees, waiting for him at the border between life and death, his enemy, the Shadow creature. By crossing over into its home turf, Ged has attracted its attention. Now Ged faces the possibility that he might draw the creature to him and that his very presence will be a threat to his new friends.
The obvious course of action would be to flee; but Ged also has an obligation to defend the fisher-folk from the dragons. Since the dragons have been lying low of late, Ged decides to take the fight to them. He sails a boat to the dragon-ridden isle of Pendor.
The meeting of Ged with the Dragon of Pendor has to be my favorite scene in the book, and Le Guin's dragon ranks up there with Smaug the Terrible as one of the best dragons in fantasy literature.
The first dragons who meet Ged are young, immature ones, and he is able to dispatch them easily. Then three come after him at once, and Ged must transform himself into a dragon to fight them -- a dangerous act which he dares not maintain for long. Changing back to his normal form, he calls out a challenge: "Six I have see, five slain, nine are told of: come out, worms!"
Finally the oldest of the dragons comes out to meet him, and he is a huge critter; one so big that Ged at first mistook it for a part of the ruined Pendor castle. Almost Ged allows himself to gaze into the dragon's hypnotic eyes, which would be a fatal mistake.
"Eight sons I had, little wizard," the dragon says. "Five died, one dies: enough. You will not win my hoard by killing them."
This is significant. Ged has proven himself worthy of the dragon's notice; the dragon will talk to him. In The Tombs of Atuan, Ged explains the matter this way: "The question is always the same with a dragon: will he talk with you or will he eat you? If you can count on his doing the former, and not doing the latter, why then you're a dragonlord." It is with this encounter that Ged enters into the ranks of the dragonlords.
The two fence with words. Dragons speak the Old Tongue which was used to create the world. Mortal men cannot lie in the Old Tongue because the words in it have such a one-to-one correspondence with reality, that you cannot alter their meaning without altering that reality. That is the basis for the Magic of Earthsea. Dragons, however, are a different matter; for them the Old Tongue is part of their very being. They can use it much more subtly than mortal mages can, and Ged must be careful when listening to the dragon's words and when answering.
"What is it that hunts you? Name it to me."
"If I could name it --" Ged stopped himself.
Yellow smoke curled above the dragon's long head, from the nostrils that were two round pits of fire.
"If you could name it you could master it, maybe. little wizard. Maybe I could tell you its name, when I see it close by. And it will come close, if you wait about my isle. It will come wherever you come. If you do not want it to come close you must run, and run, and keep running from it. And yet it will follow you. Would you like to know its name?"The dragon is playing mind games with Ged, just as Smaug played with Bilbo in The Hobbit. But Ged is here to bargain. He offers the dragon his safety. "Swear that you will never fly eastward of Pendor, and I will swear to leave you unharmed."
"You threaten me!" Ged might have killed the young dragonspawn, but he is hardly a match for a fully-grown dragon. "With what?"
"With your name, Yevaud." This is a calculated risk. Ged has been preparing for this encounter by reading all the dragon lore he can find. He guesses that this dragon might be the same one mentioned in old histories as being driven from the Island of Osskill by a previous wizard.
His guess is correct. The dragon backs down. He offers Ged jewels, but Ged has no wish for them. He offers to tell Ged the name of the thing which pursues them, and this tempts him; but Ged has an obligation to fulfill. At last, Yevaud agrees. He swears that neither he nor his sons will ever come to the Archipelago; an oath that he will be bound to honor.
The fisher-folk rejoice that Ged has ensured their safety from the dragon and would gladly let him stay in their community; but Ged knows that the Shadow will come after him. He needs to leave. And to be truthful, he has difficulty facing his friend Pechvarry, whose son he could not save.
Leaving the fishermen's community, Ged takes passage on a ship back to Roke; but strange winds keep pushing the ship away, even when Ged tries to use magic to blow the ship back on course. He realizes this must be the Roke-wind, a magical protection that keeps evil away from Roke. The creature which pursues Ged is linked to him so closely, that the Roke-wind blows against him as well. He has the ship deposit him on another island.
Friendless and alone, except for his pet otak, he continues on with no firm destination other than a vague idea of heading north and maybe returning to Gont. In one town, a friendly stranger suggests he go to the Court of the Terrenon on the Island of Osskill. Something about the stranger strikes Ged as peculiar, and Osskill has something of a dark reputation. The island is culturally distinct from the central island of the Archipelego and its natives, like all the northerners, it seems, save the Gontsmen, have lighter skin. More importantly, they practice magical traditions on Osskill different than the School of Roke; but as the stranger observes, their reputation may just reflect prejudice on the part of the Roke-mages.
Ged takes passage on a galley ship headed north. The captain does not accept the ivory currency with which the fisher-folk paid him, and Ged has no gold, so he offers to pay his passage as an oarsman.
The voyage is a long and dismal one. Most of the other oarsmen are slaves, leaving a considerable social barrier between the rowers who got whipped and the rowers who got paid. Few of the free men speak the same language as Ged. Once one of the freemen, a tough named Skiorh, tries to pick a fight with Ged. Ged does not rise to the provocation, but he catches something strange in the man's face, as if his features were slurring and changing; but a moment later it was back to normal.
Arriving on Osskill, Ged asks around for directions to the Court of the Terrenon. Surprisingly, Skiorh overhears him and offers to guide him there. Skiorh had never been particularly friendly to him before, and he is not the companion Ged would have chosen; but being alone in a foreign port, he has no other options.
The two men venture forth from the port town into the snowy hills of Osskill. Skiorh says little as the farms become fewer, the roads become rougher and the hills become wilder. Day is failing and the darkening sky threatens snow when Ged asks, not for the first time, "How far?"
"Not far," Skiorh replies, but his voice sounds like something inhuman. Turning Skiorh around to face him, Ged sees only darkness beneath the man's hood. The Shadow has possessed Skiorh; Ged actually saw it happen on the ship but didn't recognize what was taking place. Now Skiorh is a gebbeth.
Before Ged can summon his magic, the gebbeth speaks his name, "Ged!" Locked into his true form by his true name, Ged can work no transformations upon himself, as he did in the fight with the dragons. There is no one around to help him, even if any would help a stranger in this alien land. He tries beating at the gebbeth with his staff, but its body has become amorphous, like smoke, and he cannot harm it. Ged has no choice but to run.
He flees into the snowy darkness, with the gebbeth close behind him. He spots a light up on a hill and seems to hear a voice urging him to come. With his last bit of strength, and with the gebbeth clutching at him from behind, he reaches a faintly shining gate and makes it through the doorway.
He awakens in richly-furnished sleeping chambers. A beautiful lady tells him he is safe from his pursuer and that he has reached the Court of the Terrenon. She seems to know exactly who he is, which puzzles Ged. Although he does not recognize her right away, the lady Serret is the same young witch whom he sought to impress back on Gont, the daughter of the Lord of Re Albi, and who cajoled him into sneaking a look at his master's books of magic. She is now grown up and married to the elderly Lord Benderesk.
Was it coincidence that brought his path here? Ged cannot be certain. He has trouble thinking straight during his stay at the Court of the Terrenon. Maybe it's because of the overpowering guilt and shame he feels over his nearly disastrous encounter with the gebbeth; maybe it's because of Sennet's distracting beauty; maybe it's because of some enchantment of the castle, for it is a very ancient castle, raised by magic and not by human hands.
One evening, Ged asks about the Terrenon Stone, from which the keep gets its name. He imagines it it some splendid jewel. Serret takes him down to the bowels of the keep, to a locked dungeon-like cell. Ged's mystically-attuned senses recognize one of the rough-hewn blocks that make up the floor as containing a powerful magic.
"That is the Terrenon. Do you wonder that we keep so precious a jewel locked away in our deepest hoardroom?" Serret goes on to explain that the stone was made when the world itself was made, long before the islands were raised. If one puts his hand upon it, it will answer questions and reveal secrets. It foretold Ged's coming to the castle. "It might tell you... how you will defeat your enemy."
Ged refuses. He fears the power that dwells within the stone, and this time he is not afraid to admit it.
"My lady, that spirit is seals in a stone, and the stone is locked by binding-spell and blinding spell and charm of lock and ward and triple fortress-walls in a barren land, not because it is precious, but because it can work great evil."He is afraid at first that he might have offended the lady; but when he speaks to her again later, she tries a different tack. She concedes that men of lesser power would risk grave peril trying to use the stone's magic; but Ged is a superior wizard: he has the power to control the stone. It requires both power and will to harness the stone's magic. Neither she nor her husband can fully tap into its powers; but Ged can. The stone told her he could. It was she who sent the friendly stranger to direct Ged to Osskill, and she, with the stone's help, who guided Ged's footsteps to the Terrenon's gate. And the stone can help him. "Only shadow can fight shadow. Only darkness can defeat the dark. ... You will be mightier than all men, a king among men. You will rule, and I will rule with you --"
Ged is sorely tempted. But in a moment he suddenly sees things more clearly. "It is light that defeats the dark, ...light."
Lord Benderesk comes in at this moment. He and his wife had conspired together to use Ged as a puppet, but she had failed to manipulate Ged as she had hoped. What's more, her husband heard Serret's suggestion that she and Ged rule things together and he is not amused. Benderesk is about to cast a spell of Changing upon his wife as punishment, but Ged stops him.
Ged and Serret flee from the castle. Although Lord Benderesk cannot fully use the stone's power, Serret tells Ged that her husband can raise the Servants of the Stone. As they leave the palace gate, Ged spots something half buried in the snow: the dead body of Hoek, Ged's otak, presumably killed in the fight with the gebbeth.
Serret urges Ged to transform himself so that he can flee the place. Vile, winged creatures out the prehistoric past, the Servants of the Stone, are on their way from one of the towers of the castle. Serret changes herself into a seagull and flies away, but Ged, burning with anger, uses magic to create a staff for himself out of a blade of grass and uses the staff to fight the beasts.
It is only when he sees the creatures pursuing Serret, that he changes himself into a falcon and flies to her rescue. He is too late; the creatures have caught their prey, and now they turn to pursue Ged.
He flies to the edge of the island, whose shores the Stone's Servants cannot cross; and continues flying from there, driven by anger and fear, across the wide, winter seas.
NEXT: The Apprentice's Return: "You Must Turn Around:" The Shadow Pursued; the Two Castaways; A Happy Reunion; and the Final Voyage. Rules Change in the Reaches, so be ready for anything!