The legendary writer Timothy Zahn has returned to Star Wars to breathe new life into one of his most beloved characters! Last year saw Grand Admiral Thrawn return to the new canon of Star Wars in Star Wars: Rebels, and since then, we've seen him prove to be a ruthless and terrifying threat. Now, in his eagerly-anticipated return to the franchise, Timothy Zahn has stripped away the secrets and revealed the origin of Thrawn. Who is this powerful warrior? Why does he serve the Empire? And how will he shape the future of the Star Wars franchise?
Who Is Grand Admiral Thrawn?
Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of the most beloved characters in the old Star Wars Expanded Universe, and Dave Filoni (the showrunner of #StarWarsRebels) was very much aware of the love fans possess for the character. Filoni is something of a fan himself, and Thrawn's portrayal in Rebels proved it. As he observed, what's the point of importing a character from the old Expanded Universe if you then switch them up too much?
Grand Admiral Thrawn has indeed entered the new Star Wars canon. But perhaps the most thrilling thing is that the character is utterly recognizable; frankly, his portrayal in Rebels and Thrawn is so familiar that it sits comfortably with 99.9% of the old EU. We're introduced to Thrawn in Rebels as a tactically brilliant Chiss warrior, a mysterious alien who serves the racist Empire, and a lover of artwork who loves to learn about his enemies. Everything rings true to fans of the old EU; the calm reserve, the poise and deliberation, and the ruthless attention to the long-game.
Thrawn takes that back a step, retelling the tale of Thrawn's first encounter with the Empire. It's an almost word-for-word adaptation of the short story Mist Encounter, which was published in Star Wars Adventure Journal #7 back in 1995. But Zahn twists the tale slightly, adding in the character of Eli Vanto: the Watson to Thrawn's Holmes. As in his original Thrawn Trilogy, Zahn understands that his character needs a foil to be set against. And yet, just as in Conan Doyle's classic tales, the Watson gradually becomes just as remarkable as the Holmes; over the course of decades, Vanto gradually comes to realize that Thrawn saw something in him that could truly be great.
The Origin of Grand Admiral Thrawn
In the old Expanded Universe, Thrawn was part of a secretive and militaristic race known as the Chiss. Excitingly, Zahn's novel pretty much imports the entire race of the Chiss straight into the canon, perfectly preserving Thrawn's motivations. The Chiss, we learn, are effectively a bulwark between the Galaxy and the mysterious horrors of the Unknown Regions. Unfortunately, Thrawn and the Chiss disagree on one simple point: Thrawn believes in preemptive strikes, while the Chiss do not. Thrawn finds himself increasingly in conflict with his people, until he's ultimately exiled.
But even as an exile, Thrawn believes that his people deserve his protection. He soon allies with the Empire, attracted to the structure and order of Imperial life. For Thrawn, the Old Republic was simply too conflicted, with democracy giving too many people a voice. Like Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones, Thrawn is instead attracted to the idea of dictatorship. To be sure, he doesn't consider the Empire to be perfect; and yet he's willing to accept the imperfections, believing that the Empire needs to be strong in order to stand against the threats that lurk in the shadows. He justifies Palpatine to himself, assuring himself that Palpatine will not live forever, and that the Empire of the future will be very different to the one he sees today.
How Thrawn Has Changed in the New Star Wars Canon
In the new Star Wars canon, we have two new elements. The first is that Thrawn is actually being used by Palpatine; as was previously established in Aftermath: Empire's End, Palpatine is fascinated by something he can sense out there in the Unknown Regions. In return for his opportunity to serve, Thrawn is giving Palpatine knowledge about the Unknown Regions. To be sure, he's omitting all knowledge of the Chiss, but Palpatine doesn't mind that; he's interested in something else, something that most fans equate with Supreme Leader Snoke. For Palpatine, Thrawn is nothing more than a means to an end.
The second fascinating twist in the new canon is that Thrawn was not exiled at all. In the new canon, Thrawn was exploring the edges of the Unknown Regions back during the Clone Wars, and even crossed paths with Anakin Skywalker. He saw the Galaxy on the brink of chaos, and was utterly unimpressed. Years passed, and on another scouting mission Thrawn encountered a group of Neimoidians, who told him of the newborn Empire. Thrawn and his superiors were concerned, and needed to know whether the Empire could be an ally — or could be taken down as easy prey. So his 'exile' was self-imposed, and nothing more than a ruse to gain access to the Empire. Of course, the ruse went further than Thrawn had ever expected, as he began to rise in the ranks and ultimately gained a position of power.
The twists in the tale are fascinating. Perhaps the most exciting part is that this origin dovetails perfectly with the one we saw in the old Expanded Universe! The only contradiction seems to be with the novel Outbound Flight; some version of those events happened (Thrawn seems to have tangled with the Vagaari), but the Old Republic project to the Rim and beyond seems to have been erased from the canon.
The Massacre at Batonn
Still, one element in Rebels had sat uncomfortable with the Thrawn fans know and love. The series mentioned a massacre at the planet Batonn, where Thrawn had been responsible for slaughtering civilians in order to kill Rebels. In the new canon, that had earned the Emperor's pleasure; but it didn't fit with the surgical precision of the Thrawn we know and love.
In telling the story of Grand Admiral Thrawn, Timothy Zahn is able to reveal the truth of Batonn. It's a fascinating revelation, and one that's sure to have implications for Rebels Season 4. Suffice it to say, that all is not as the Emperor imagines it to be; Batonn is actually the site of one of Thrawn's rare mistakes, and the fate of those civilians rests on the shoulders of another. For once, Thrawn has miscalculated, and his plans are ruined when another detonates a dangerous explosive while inside an energy-shield. Thrawn is innocent, but willing to shoulder responsibility for the deaths as he believes they will encourage people to fear the Empire; he believes that fear will ultimately lead many potential Rebels to abandon their quest for freedom.
Ultimately, Thrawn is something of a masterpiece. It marks the triumphant return of Timothy Zahn, and allows us to perfectly reconcile the Thrawn we saw in Rebels with the character we've loved since 1991. It also sets a pattern for Lucasfilm; we now know how they'll adapt even core characters into the new canon. Incredibly, this new backstory sits comfortably with almost the entirety of the old Expanded Universe, just as it does with the new canon. That's sure to make this book a hit with fans of old and new alike!