Who is Thrawn and Why is His Reveal Such a Big Deal?
In a watershed moment for Star Wars fans, one of the most beloved characters from the old Star Wars Expanded Universe has finally been brought into the official canon. While many of us know the character to varying degrees already, if you are curious to know more about this blue-skinned fellow, hit the jump to find an answer to the question – Who is Thrawn? – and to see why fans of the character are so excited at the news of his return.
“The only [puzzle] worth solving. The complete, total and utter destruction of the Rebellion.” – Grand Admiral Thrawn (Heir to the Empire)
Thrawn as a character was the primary antagonist of a trilogy of novels released in the early ’90’s by Timothy Zahn. These three novels- Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command introduced several characters that were to become long term mainstays of the Expanded Universe. Among these characters were Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Captain Pellaeon, and even the Solo twins Jacen and Jaina. But it was Grand Admiral Thrawn, the cold and calculating gentleman-villain, whose name was to be applied to this trilogy.
“The Thrawn Trilogy” served as a sort of reawakening of interest in the Star Wars universe that had begun to wain in the years following Return of the Jedi. He was a villain far removed from what we had grown accustomed to, closely resembling Tarkin in demeanor but still a highly distinct character in his cultured refinement that would serve as a template for many later villains even outside of the Star Wars Universe. So we know the origins of the character but we still have yet to pierce the surface of who exactly Thrawn is.
“Do you know the difference between an error and a mistake? Anyone can make an error. But that error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” – Grand Admiral Thrawn (Heir to the Empire)
*note- What follows will draw extensively from Thrawn as a character in the old Expanded Universe, drawing mostly from Timothy Zahn’s work. It is currently unknown how much of this will be transferred over to canon.
Grand Admiral Thrawn was born Mitth’raw’nuruodo, a Chiss. The Chiss were an empire beyond known space in the “Unknown Regions” and thus beyond the influence of the Republic and later the Empire. Thrawn was born a commoner but through his remarkable military skill was elevated to the Chiss nobility. He would come to Palpatine’s attention through his actions involving a deep space colonization project known as “Outbound Flight.” I won’t go into much detail in the actual events and recommend reading Zahn’s book Outbound Flight instead. But following these actions, Thrawn would find himself exiled from Chiss space and later come into the employ of Palpatine after the creation of the Empire.
Thrawn, through his prodigious military abilities, achieved the rank of “Grand Admiral” a remarkable achievement in the thoroughly human-dominated Imperial military. Thrawn’s abilities stemmed from his unique outlook on warfare itself. One of Thrawn’s primary attributes was his taste for alien art. Thrawn believed that, through understanding the art of a species, he could then be capable of understanding the very way the particular species thought. Through such practice Thrawn proved to be capable of such feats as identifying what formations an alien fighter squadron would engage in and how they would react to his own ships’ formations.
In the years following the collapse of the Empire, Thrawn would return from an Imperial expedition into the far reaches of space to find the galaxy in chaos as the New Republic struggled to reassert order. Thrawn above all else believed in an orderly society, and thus through sheer force of will united the warring factions of the Empire and brought them all under his banner. In the few years of his leadership, the Empire stood on the brink of restoration before circumstances beyond even Thrawn’s ability to see would lead to both his death and the final defeat of the Empire. As of now, the current canon does not speak of Thrawn and any actions he may have took in the aftermath of the Battle of Endor, but we now know he exists and will no doubt be as dangerous to our Rebel heroes as Vader was, if not more so.
Thrawn stood in direct contrast with Vader in how he handled his subordinates. Rather then wantonly killing any man who failed him, Thrawn instead allowed room for failure in his men, assuming they stemmed from matters outside of their control. There are two famously contrasting scenes in the Thrawn trilogy involving an ensign who fails in managing a tractor beam, causing Thrawn’s meticulously laid out plan to fall apart. In the first instance the ensign threw blame on his superiors and refused to admit that he had been trained properly. In actuality, he had just failed to do his duty with due diligence, leading the ensign to be quickly executed by Thrawn. But later on, another ensign would also fail and allow a rebel to escape, but the ensign proved to Thrawn that the fault came from the design of the ship, impressing Thrawn with his creativity involving the technical fault. This ensign was applauded by the Grand Admiral and the fault was fixed. When a later rebel would try the same trick he would find to his horror that it no longer worked.
What made Thrawn truly elite among his peers was his ability to manipulate Force users. Despite being unable to draw from the Force himself, Thrawn still proved more than capable of manipulating Jedi to act in ways that benefited him. For example, at one point, he took a flaw inherent in the Force where Jedi experienced increased sensitivity to mass deaths and used this flaw to temporarily stun a group of Jedi. He is perhaps most famous, however, for his use of Ysalamiri, a lizard which creates an anti-Force bubble, to weaken Jedi by stripping them of their greatest asset.
In the “Thrawn Trilogy” Grand Admiral Thrawn would nearly bring about the very downfall of the New Republic before his untimely death. He was a virtually unstoppable force in his ingenuity and creativity, always seeming five steps ahead of the Republic at every turn. The great mystery of Thrawn was trying to understand what he was planning next, every little action he engaged in built on to a greater master plan in which all the pieces aligned in a stunning cascade. One goes from wondering why Thrawn seemed to be so intent on stealing mining ships to utter amazement in how these ships would be later employed. This was the genius of Thrawn, playing chess while the rest of us are caught up learning to play checkers.
“He’s a clever villain. People like reading about clever, interesting opponents to our heroes. People who are able to outthink, outmaneuver as well as outfight. Ultimately the heroism of the hero is measured by the villainy or power of the villain and with Thrawn I wanted something different than Force using Vader or Palpatine. Somebody who doesn’t have Luke’s Force Powers, but can run him around in a maze whenever he really wants to” – Timothy Zahn
“I am not the Lord Darth Vader–I do not spend my men recklessly. Nor do I take their deaths lightly.” – Grand Admiral Thrawn (The Last Command)
The Expanded Universe was a mixture of good, bad, great, and awful. The Thrawn Trilogy stood among the very greatest of these works, and Thrawn as perhaps its most memorable aspect. He was gentleman soldier, something we had never seen in the Star Wars universe. His refinement and culture stood virtually unparalleled among any character we had yet to be introduced to. He wasn’t some evil megalomaniac that wanted to rule the galaxy, his motivations were of a desire to instill order and stability. In the decades since his first appearance he has been one of the foremost anti-villains and fan favorite characters even among the classic film characters.
For a time, the Thrawn Trilogy was considered an honorary Episode 7, 8, and 9 in recognition of the merit of the novels and the impact they have had on Star Wars culture. Ask many of us who supported the old EU who we most wished was still around out of the sea of Mara Jades and Kyle Katarns, and you’ll find that it is quite often Thrawn we are seemingly drawn to in the end. A great villain is a rare gift and Thrawn’s merits as a villain mark him among the greatest villains not only in Star Wars but arguably in media as a whole.
The reaction to Thrawn’s return to canon cannot be understated. Out of all the scenes from the exquisite trailer for Rebels, the near universal reaction is a proclamation of ecstatic glee at Thrawn’s reveal. Everytime I personally watch the trailer, my heart beats just a little faster at Thrawn’s reveal. To see him standing surrounded by art is more in character than anything I had personally hoped for. This, coupled with the return of Timothy Zahn to Star Wars literature, serves as a source of excitement and a ray of hope proving that in our new canon any are welcome as long as they deserve it.
“To defeat an enemy you must know them. Not simply their battle tactics, but their history, philosophy, art…” – Grand Admiral Thrawn (Star Wars Rebels)
So what now?
Despite being a character found in a relatively small handful of books, Thrawn has become an icon to Star Wars fans everywhere. One can only imagine how his popularity will shift moving forward. Many, myself included, only dared to dream we could even be introduced to a character similar to Thrawn. The actual return of the blue-skinned grand admiral, who appears to be almost identical to his EU counterpart, is perhaps the first step to an end of the scatterings of bitterness some fans still feel over the canon wipe.
The introduction of Thrawn to Rebels and the upcoming book by Timothy Zahn gives a new tool for Lucasfilm in their development of our unified Star Wars story. Thrawn will be introduced to a new generation of Star Wars fans, and perhaps even bring those who have been hesitant to get into Rebels into the fold. He serves to demonstrate that the menace of the Empire extended beyond superweapons and the Sith. I expect his impact on Rebels to be immeasurable in both fan reaction and dramatic impact.
It is rare that we as consumers of stories are gifted with villains who we admire for their intellect and creativity rather than their ruthlessness or menace. It gifts us the ability to understand and match wits with a villain as opposed to merely stand in awe of them. For me personally, Thrawn has been my favorite character since his first appearance in Heir to the Empire. It is why he is my avatar in The Cantina, and while not the source of my Cantina username, he is a definite inspiration of it. My excitement at his arrival can hardly be put into words. Feel free to share your thoughts on Thrawn’s return in the comments below or in The Cantina.