Ged, originally known as Duny and nicknamed Sparrowhawk, lives in a mountain village on the island of Gont. His aunt, the village witch, begins training him in magic. Sparrowhawk uses his magic to save his village from Kargish invaders by summoning fog to conceal his village and distract the attackers. Sparrowhawk is discovered by Ogion the Silent, a powerful mage who takes Sparrowhawk as his apprentice. On Sparrowhawk's thirteenth birthday, as a rite of passage, he is given his "true name"—Ged. Ogion attempts to teach Ged about the "Balance," the concept that magic can upset the natural order of the world if used improperly. In an attempt to impress a girl who doubts his abilities, Ged searches Ogion's spell-books and inadvertently summons a strange shadow, which is banished by Ogion. Ogion eventually invites Ged to attend a school for wizards on the island of Roke.
At the school, Ged’s skill inspires admiration and envy from other students, and he befriends another student named Vetch. Ged also shows his affinity with nature when, returning alone from an isolated tower, a small wild animal called an otak becomes his companion. However, Ged studies magic beyond his level and ignores warnings about respecting the Balance. Moreover, he begins a rivalry with an older student named Jasper. This rivalry culminates in a duel where Ged casts a powerful spell which goes awry. A rip in the fabric of the world opens to the realm of the dead, and a shadow creature passes through, attacking Ged and scarring his face. The Archmage Nemmerle drives off the shadow and restores Balance, though it costs him all of his power and he dies soon after.
Ged spends months healing before resuming his studies. The new Archmage, Gensher, refuses Ged’s oath of fealty because he suspects he may be evil. Warning Ged that only Roke’s magical barriers protect him from the shadow, Gensher describes the creature as an ancient and nameless evil that wishes to possess Ged’s body. Years later, Ged graduates from the Roke school at age 18 and takes a job protecting poor villagers of the Ninety Isles from a feared attack by dragons. While traveling, Ged learns that he is being pursued by the shadow creature he summoned on Roke. Sailing to Pendor, Ged kills five young dragons and exacts a promise from an adult dragon that he and his brood will never threaten the archipelago.
Chased by the shadow, Ged tries to return to Roke but is blocked by the island’s protective magic. Taking the advice to seek help at the Court of the Terrenon in Osskil, Ged flees north. On Osskil, the shadow nearly catches him. Fleeing in terror, Ged stumbles through a castle gate as the creature claws off his robe and kills his pet otak. Ged wakes to find himself in the castle of Benderesk, who is the lord of the Terranon, a stone locked in the castle’s depths. Benderesk’s wife, Lady Serret, shows Ged the stone and tempts him to speak to it, claiming it can give him limitless knowledge and power. Believing the stone harbors an ancient and evil spirit, Ged will not speak to it. When Serret tries to tempt Ged again, he sees Benderesk eavesdropping and realizes they wish to enslave him to use his power. Ged ultimately escapes Osskil by transforming into a falcon and flying away.
Ged returns to Gont and meets Ogion. After hearing of Ged’s experiences, Ogion advises him to confront the shadow creature. Ged pursues it across the sea until it lures him into a fog where his boat is wrecked on a reef. While marooned on an islet, Ged recovers with the help of an elderly couple who were apparently abandoned on the island as child heirs of a defeated Kargish royal family. The woman gives Ged part of a broken bracelet as a gift, which he later learns is half of the lost Ring of Erreth-Akbe.
Ged escapes the island and continues his pursuit, eventually meeting and traveling with his friend Vetch. They ultimately reach a dark shore and Ged confronts the shadow. They embrace and merge, with Ged and Vetch realizing that the shadow was part of Ged's spirit, and that Ged could only reunite with it by understanding it as part of himself.