e’s perhaps the most successful Star Wars villain to originate in the vast catalog of novels that expanded the universe, iconic with his blue skin and striking red eyes, and an absolutely rad Star Destroyer — he’s Grand Admiral Thrawn.
His impact, from his initial introduction in Timothy Zahn’s 1991 bestseller, Heir to the Empire, to modern-day television shows like Star Wars Rebels, cannot be overstated. Despite 30+ years of outsmarting our heroes, somehow it still feels like Thrawn is just getting started.
Though his story diverges somewhat between his Legends and Canon depictions, a few core consistencies are essential to making Thrawn great. He’s a brilliant military tactician, always two to three steps ahead of his opponents.
He primarily gains his advantage through an unconventional method—rigorous study and appreciation of art. Dissecting the common denominators across a specific species’ cultural tendencies often allows him to see tactical situations from an advantageous angle.
Furthermore, Thrawn hails from the Chiss species of the planet Csilia in the Unknown Regions. His alien appearance is iconic and easy to identify, setting him apart from the other rank-and-file standard-issue Imperial officers we became accustomed to seeing in the Original Trilogy.
Zahn developed this into its own complicated backstory—why exactly had Palpatine allowed an alien to rise to the rank of Grand Admiral in the xenophobic Galactic Empire? And why wasn’t he present during the events of the films themselves?
All of this—and much more—is explored in the many novels in which Thrawn appears.
In command of the Imperial Star Destroyer Chimera, Thrawn is a fleet commander able to see the big picture of space battle strategy. He functions as a foil for other notable villains of the series—he neither wields a lightsaber nor pilots a starfighter.
Thrawn is not known for his maniacal laughter, hand-to-hand combat skills, or cruel brutality. Instead, he commands his underlings with respect.
In fact, his motivations are held so closely to his chest that it’s possible to question whether the label of “villain” is even appropriate for the white-clad commander.
Why is Thrawn still relevant?
A single line uttered by a fan-favorite character impacted the Star Wars fandom similarly to the destruction of Alderaan (but in a good way!) — when Ahsoka Tano interrogated Magistrate Morgan Elsbeth in episode five of The Mandalorian’s second season, saying with fierce determination, “Where is Grand Admiral Thrawn?”
Whether this mystery is soon to be explored in The Mandalorian, the Ahsoka Disney+ series, or somewhere else entirely, one thing is certain—the Grand Admiral is soon to make his grand entrance into live-action Star Wars storytelling for the first time.
Original Thrawn Trilogy
The Star Wars universe was, for all intents and purposes, dormant in the cultural consciousness by the early 1990s. The Marvel comic, which began its run in 1977, ended its run with issue 107 in 1985.
Both Han Solo and Lando Calrissian received their own trilogies of adventures by Brian Daley and L. Neil Smith, respectively, but their stories had little-to-no impact on the ongoing overarching story of Star Wars at large. The West End Games roleplaying game continued to develop the lore in the years after Return of the Jedi had left the theaters.
However, their continuity was handed off to writers like Timothy Zahn, who were tasked with reigniting the long-dwindled flames of the galaxy far, far away. And reignite the flame he did.
In the 20th anniversary edition of Heir to the Empire, Zahn spoke of Thrawn’s origins. He intended to craft a character who carved out his own individual niche among the ranks of Palpatine and Darth Vader, strikingly different in both appearance and tactics.
Enter Grand Admiral Thrawn aboard the ISD Chimera. The opening chapter of the smash-hit novel depicts Thrawn outsmarting his opponents because he is intimately familiar with the tendencies of their culture.
Because Thrawn’s strength was derived not from brute force nor the mystical Force but from art appreciation. That is, he appreciates his opponents into oblivion, dissecting their strategies before the battle has even begun.
All of this was observed through the eyes of Thrawn’s underling, Gilad Pellaeon. Pellaeon is cut from the purest stock the Imperial officers had to offer—loyal, precise, and conventional. We, along with Pellaeon, are baffled by Thrawn’s off-kilter approach.
His strategy unfolds across the trilogy. Throughout Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, Thrawn recruits and manipulates deranged Dark Jedi clone Joruus C’Baoth to employ his Battle Meditation ability to bolster Thrawn’s fleet’s forces.
This two-pronged approach — outmatching his opponents through his knowledge of their tendencies and leveraging a Dark Jedi against them — landed our heroes Luke, Han, Leia, and the fledgling New Republic on the back foot, scrambling for a way to match wits with this newcomer onto the galactic stage.
Demise and Defeat
Spoiler warning for 1993’s The Last Command
Thrawn was seemingly unbeatable. He managed to get his hands on the majority of a lost Clone Wars-era fleet of dreadnaughts—the “dark force,” aka the Katana Fleet.
He staffed said battleships with a clone crew he had acquired from ransacking the Emperor’s garage storehouse, Mount Tantiss. He was able to ward off the stray Force-user, whether it was his own unpredictable ally in C’Baoth or the ever-heroic Luke Skywalker, with Force-repelling reptiles, the ysalamiri.
He used cloaking technology to disguise a blockade of asteroids around the capital world of Coruscant. Thrawn stood on the precipice of greatness.
On top of that, he was protected by shadowy bodyguards once loyal to Darth Vader—the Noghri. In a classic Zahn twist-ending, Leia Organa Solo managed to persuade the Noghri forces into flipping to her cause, revealing Darth Vader’s treachery to their people.
Thus, Thrawn’s own personal bodyguard, Rukh, murdered his own commander on his own ship, the Chimera. It seemed, at the time, that Thrawn’s story had come to a close.
How wrong we were!
Hand of Thrawn
After giving us the storytelling saga of the decade, Timothy Zahn had the honor of closing it out. 1998’s robust duology, consisting of Specter of the Past and Vision of the Future reintroduced the mystique of the Grand Admiral via the possibility that he had cloned himself.
There we begin to learn about the Chiss, which Zahn continued to develop in his various Canon novels. Thrawn’s legacy looms large throughout the massively lengthy doorstopper books that effectively concluded the Expanded Universe storytelling saga that spanned the entirety of the 1990s.
One more significant entry in Thrawn’s story in the Legends continuity is Outbound Flight. Outbound Flight takes place in the time period in between Episodes I and II.
Therein, while in command of a Chiss fleet, Thrawn encounters Obi-Wan and Anakin as they are aboard an exploration vessel that winds up where they are not meant to be. Here we also learn of Thrawn’s brother, Thrass. The story is referenced in Canon entries Greater Good and Lesser Evil as well.
Rebels and Beyond: Thrawn’s Revival in Star Wars Canon
Star Wars Rebels
After two decades of dormancy, Thrawn reappeared at Star Wars Celebration 2016. Dave Filoni ushered in Thrawn’s grand return in the Star Wars Rebels Season Three trailer with these famous words: “Let’s...expand the universe a little bit, shall we?”
There, Thrawn revealed his signature doctrine, “To defeat an enemy, you must know them—not simply their battle tactics, but their history, philosophy, and art.”
Fans were overjoyed at the reveal, with the audience erupting in thunderous applause. Simultaneously with his Rebels' return, Thrawn also received a brand-new Canon novel treatment from none other than his creator, Timothy Zahn.
This novel, simply titled Thrawn, told of the character’s first steps into the Imperial ranks and his struggles to adapt—an origin story of sorts. This one-two punch of the TV show and the novel made one thing loud and clear: Thrawn was back.
Over the course of the next two seasons of Rebels, Thrawn proved to be a formidable force for the Ghost crew to face: a perfect match for Sabine Wren, the Mandalorian girl who has a habit of turning every Imperial surface she can find into a canvas for her colorful art. A standout episode is “Hera’s Heroes” from Season Three, in which Thrawn takes up residence in Hera’s family home on Ryloth, acquiring a priceless family heirloom while simultaneously learning his opponents’ histories and baiting them to act foolishly.
Spoilers for the Rebels’ series finale
The series concludes with a drastically different fate for Thrawn compared to his demise in The Last Command. Instead, Thrawn is outmaneuvered by forces beyond his control, with the hyperspace-capable whales Purgill transporting both Thrawn and Ezra away to an unknown location.
We learn in the epilogue that a wisened Ahsoka sets off with Sabine in search of the pair, setting up yet more exciting stories to be told in the future.
Imperial Thrawn Trilogy
If two seasons of a TV show and a handful of Legends books aren’t enough Thrawn in your life, fans have had no shortage of reading material in recent years. Thrawn’s first foray into the Canon bookshelves, Thrawn, kicked off what became an unofficial trilogy.
We’ll refer to this as the “Imperial Thrawn Trilogy” for clarity purposes. This trilogy comprises the aforementioned Thrawn, the New York Times number one bestseller Thrawn Alliances, and Thrawn: Treason.
These books see Thrawn facing a variety of challenges in his service to the Galactic Empire: the pirate Nighthawk, the mind-controlling Grysk aliens, and the political landscape of the Empire itself as he rubs shoulders with the likes of Grand Moff Tarkin and even Darth Vader himself. The novels tie into Thrawn’s appearances and plotlines in Rebels and also set up the Grysk villains who would be explored in the Grand Admiral’s next trilogy of novels, the Ascendency Trilogy.
Rising the Ranks
2017’s Thrawn is a significant entry in the life of the character we knew as a powerful commander in Legends. Here we learned that Thrawn would need friends in order to make it in a new culture.
One such ally is Eli Vanto. Eil befriends Thrawn at the Imperial Academy, and the two must help each other in order to stand out among the other cadets.
Thrawn becomes a sympathetic character fans root for as he faces adversity for being an alien in the xenophobic Empire. We learn that although he is a brilliant analyst and battle tactician, he struggles to comprehend the political maneuvering that would be necessary to thrive in the Empire.
Thrawn’s meteoric rise makes for a compelling start to this new chapter in the character’s saga.
Thrawn even received a comic book adaptation from Marvel Comics. Good luck tracking down single issues or the trade paperback; they’ve become quite desirable among collectors over the years.
Thankfully, the issues are all available digitally and are on Marvel Unlimited at this point as well. It’s a fantastic way to consume the story from a different perspective portrayed by writer Jody Houser and illustrator Luke Ross, especially with rogue Thrawn’s wild hair in issue one!
One of the compelling elements of the Imperial Thrawn Trilogy is Thrawn’s relationship with the other heavy hitters within the Imperial leadership: Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, Director Krennic, and even Emperor Palpatine himself.
In Thrawn: Alliances, split narratives explore Thrawn’s relationship with Darth Vader in the present while also taking us to a Thrawn-Anakin encounter via flashbacks. The two establish mutual respect, but also maintain their own individual agendas and methods.
Tarkin and Krennic
We also see Thrawn engaged in political sparring with Grand Moff Tarkin and Rogue One’s Director Krennic, who want to position themselves as powerful forces within the Empire. Thrawn’s agenda seems to be more centered around the Chiss species’ concerns.
In Thrawn: Treason, Krennic seeks to sabotage the TIE Defender program that Thrawn is pioneering. The TIE Defenders are ships from the Legends video game TIE Fighter and were seen in Star Wars Rebels as well.
However, the trouble with Tarkin and Krennic is that Thrawn cannot outthink them in space combat. Instead, he must turn to other methods to achieve his goals.
If two Thrawn trilogies weren’t enough for you, Timothy Zahn delivered yet another. Three more Thrawn novels to make a trilogy of trilogies, of sorts.
The Ascendency trilogy is a tremendous departure from the tone and setting of its predecessors, however. This time, beginning with Chaos Rising, we delve deep into Thrawn’s Chiss history.
Zahn masterfully develops an entire society, complete with class structure, a complex political scheme, and the intricacies of the Chiss culture.
Though previously established in Legends, the Chiss society’s nine ruling families take center stage in the Ascendency books. Here we see the intense and storied rivalry between the Mitth and Irizi families— a tug-of-war in which Thrawn finds himself wedged right in the middle.
The family dynamics are rife with backstabbing, thinking multiple steps ahead, and alliances that position Thrawn and his companions in complicated power struggles.
We learn, for example, how Thrawn became a Mitth, along with some insight into his family of origin and the mystery surrounding his sister. Although he was selected by the Mitth for his intellectual prowess, not all of the prominent Mitth wanted to see him succeed.
The meaning of Mitth’raw’nuruodo
Let’s face it—Thrawn’s full name is a mouthful. “Mitth’raw’nuruodo” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Thus the “core name:” Thrawn.
Derived from his family name as well as the honorific “odo,” Thrawn goes by his monosyllabic middle name. The Ascendency series sees several characters switch from one family to another in a way that is reminiscent of a disaffected NBA player in search of a home in the league.
Feats and Accomplishments
Ultimately, the Ascendency Trilogy explores a previously uncharted area of the Star Wars map—“the Chaos.” Here, Thrawn functions as much more of a protagonist than in his original introduction.
He discovers secrets that could unravel the entire Chiss society, rescues a near-extinct species, makes friends (and enemies) galore, and, of course, appreciates some art along the way.
In Chaos Rising, Thrawn and his longtime friend and supporter Admiral Ar’alani are tasked with investigating an attack on the Chiss capital city. They find that a similar attack had been conducted by a pirate group, the Nikardun.
He takes one of their ships captive, and discovers that Yiv the Benevolent has conquered three planets in the area.
Having seemingly met his intellectual match in Yiv, Thrawn is detained by the Nikardun general. He doesn’t take the hostage situation lying down, however.
He commandeers another species’ ship and dissects their art in order to reach the conclusion that they might partner with the Chiss to turn against the Nikardun. Thrawn has a habit of making moves that are a little off the beaten path, as he does here, allowing the young Sky-walker Che’ri and her caregiver Thalias to be taken captive by manipulating them into a confrontation on his terms.
This flushes out the real threat, a mysterious Grysk named Jixtus. Having failed in his scheme involving Yiv the Benevolent and the Nicardun Destiny, Jixtus began employing other methods to conquer the Chaos and the Chiss Ascendency.
Thus, we move on to the story contained in Greater Good.
Therein, Thrawn discovers that Jixtus has sent the telepathic Agbui species to infiltrate the Chiss and sow seeds of dissent with the intention of producing civil war. This discovery was made thanks in part to Thrawn’s analysis of a mysterious piece of jewelry sold by the Agbui coordinator Haplif.
The jewelry is made from nyix, a valuable metal used to make warship hulls. This sparks an arms race among Chiss families vying for power, hoping to acquire the nyix supply in order to strengthen their position among the Ruling Families.
Thrawn, having previously protected the Paccosh species and earned their trust, learns from the Paccosh of the Magys, the matriarch from the home planet of Sunrise. She confirms that Sunrise is the source of the nyix.
Thrawn is ambushed on multiple occasions, frees the Paataatus from Nikardun control, discovers an asteroid housing a missile used to hide evidence of Grysk activity, and defeats the Vagari pirates. He leads a coalition to stop the near-civil war between Chiss fleets in their attempt to acquire the fake nyix mine.
Finally, Lesser Evil.
Jixtus goes on to ally himself with General Nakirre of the Kilji, in command of the Killhoarde fleet. Jixtus and the Grysk manipulated the Kilji into waging war on the Chiss.
Thrawn finds them, then hatches a plan to provoke Jixtus into an even larger attack that will convince the Chiss Aristocra to fight back. Thrawn realizes that Jixtus has manufactured pseudo-Chiss ships in order to further escalate the conflict among rival Chiss families.
Thrawn proves victorious in defeating Jixtus by convincing the Chiss fleet to feint dead in space, luring Jixtus into a false sense of security, then springing into action in a well-practiced, coordinated maneuver. Jixtus, furious, turns on Nakirre, which renders the entirety of the Kilji vassals powerless.
Thrawn employs a gravity well generator; other species’ fighters come to Thrawn’s aid; and all of the Grysk ships self-destruct.
In his years commanding the Springhawk for the Chiss Ascendency, Thrawn built his résumé as a commander, paving the way for his eventual success in the Galactic Empire. But it came with a cost.
As he positions the Chiss' enemies against one another, he violates the Chiss terms of engagement by making a preemptive strike against the Kilji and Grysk fleets, as well as forming military alliances with non-Chiss species. Thus the famed hero who saved the Ascendency became an outcast.
Thrawn’s experiences in the Ascendency and the Chaos regions led him to the conclusion that drastic action was necessary. Although he was successful on the military front, he knowingly sacrificed his career on a political level.
This would result in him leaving the ranks of the Chiss in order to join the Galactic Empire in order to use his military prowess to assist the Empire’s massive military in warding off threats that could eventually pose a problem for his own people.
Throughout three trilogies of novels — both Legends and Canon — Thrawn holds a uniquely significant place in Star Wars storytelling history. He captured the imagination of fans as a villain who held his own against Force-wielding opponents.
Although a handful of other characters who originated in Legends have bridged the gap into Canon, cough — Jaxxon — cough, Thrawn is without a doubt the most significant. His character evolution from an Imperial who could outsmart even Admiral Ackbar and push our heroes to their limits to a protagonist in his own right is truly one of the most nuanced character evolutions in the forty-plus-year history of the Star Wars saga.
Where is Grand Admiral Thrawn?!
Thrawn’s character has certainly progressed tremendously since his original appearance over thirty years ago. In fact, there is considerable modern-day debate concerning whether Thrawn is more of a “good guy” or a “bad guy.”
In the Thrawn Trilogy, he certainly filled the role of “villain,” as he did in Rebels as well. In his other appearances, not so much.
We received our first glimpse at his shades of grey in Outbound Flight. There, he came away as more of an antihero than the galaxy-conquering commander we first met him as in Heir to the Empire.
That thread was expanded upon in much detail in titles such as Thrawn and Chaos Rising.
The question many of us are left with at this juncture is what’s to come for the character we have adored across a variety of media for decades? As we await his introduction to live-action TV, we wonder: which Thrawn will we encounter? One who’s hellbent on pursuing his own agenda, or a sympathetic antihero?
One thing’s for certain. However it happens, it is sure to be artistically done.
Want more Thrawn in your life? Check out our reading guide for a carefully curated reading list of everything Thrawn-related. Perhaps you’ll want to check out the hardcover collector’s omnibus containing every issue of the Thrawn Trilogy comic adaptation along with Dark Empire.
On our YouTube channel, we’ve got a guide to Thrawn, book recaps of Chaos Rising and Greater Good, and reviews of all three Ascendency books. On top of that, our Expanded Universe podcast, Legends Lookback, has episodes on all three books of the Thrawn Trilogy as well as Outbound Flight.
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