Pride goeth before the fall
Ged is just like us, if we were super magical wizards with a lot of emotional baggage and personal issues. (Which we are, clearly.) A Wizard of Earthsea tells Ged's story from his childhood to his, well, early adulthood? Late teens? (What is nineteen?) In any case, this book chronicles his life from birth until he completes his quest by accepting his shadow. In other words, Ged stops being such a proud jerk and accepts that he's not the center of the universe – he's just a part of that universe.
That might not sound like such a big transformation (look, we can change into proud jerks and change back hundreds of times a day), but for Ged, this is a big deal. He starts out the story "loud and proud and full of temper" (1.3). And the first half of the story features him being driven by pride quite a few times.
Want some examples? Sure you do. Remember when Ged thinks he's being made fun of by the daughter of the lord of Re Albi, and he starts experimenting with dangerous magic to show her how great he is (2.27)? How great is he? Not as great as he thinks, since he needs Ogion to come and save him (2.43) – whoops. (For some more examples, check out "Themes: Pride.") It's also Ged's pride that gets him into a fight with Jasper, which leads to him trying to prove his power by summoning a spirit, which results in the unleashing of the shadow – even worse than that last flub-up we mentioned. So, really, Ged's whole quest starts because Ged is too proud to know his own limits.
But after the shadow scratches his face, Ged loses that pride. (Getting beaten by a shadow will do that to a fellow.) Don't believe us? Compare these two descriptions of our boy:
[…] he was all work and pride and temper, and held himself apart. (4.1)
[Ged] was a strange young grim fellow who spoke little, but he spoke fairly, and without pride. (5.2)
That's a pretty serious change, and from that point on, Ged's main problem isn't his pride and anger – it's mostly that he's afraid and despairing. He learned a hard lesson from fear (4.105) and is afraid of what he might do in the future. (Here's a helpful hint: if you're afraid of being a proud jerk, just don't be one.) Luckily, Ged has the help of his friend Vetch, and that gives him confidence to carry on until he defeats the shadow.
Wait, does he defeat the shadow?
Take another look at the ending of Chapter 10, when Ged faces the shadow and we learn that they share the same name. This is kind of an amazing (and surprising) ending, because instead of killing (or imprisoning, or banishing, or erasing) the evil force, Ged seems to absorb it – as if his shadow were part of him. What's up with that ending? How do you feel about it? Does it seem anti-climactic? Or do you think that Le Guin has a good point here – that we can't always kill off the part of ourselves that we don't like? (Psst. If you want more of our thoughts, zip over to "What's Up with the Ending?")
Ged, Sparrowhawk, Duny? A note on names.
As you might have noticed, in Earthsea, people have a use name that everyone knows and uses, and they have a true name, which is secret and which captures something true about them. But some people also have a child name – a name that, you guessed it, gets used only for children.
As a child, Ged's name is Duny, which was given to him by his mother (1.3). Then he gets the use name Sparrowhawk because people see him with birds of prey a lot (1.21). And he also gets his true name of Ged when he's thirteen. (People get their true names around puberty, from what we can deduce.)
But here's a thought: why is his name Ged? It seems pretty darn close to God, doesn't it? But do you think Ged is a God-like character?