Who is Supreme Leader Snoke? Introduced in The Force Awakens, the powerful being behind the First Order is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The novelization of The Force Awakens revealed that Snoke witnessed the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire from afar, that he watched the New Republic's birth pains, and that he focused his attentions particularly on Ben Solo. No surprise, then, that a Lucasfilm exec recently confirmed that Snoke isn't human!
Author Chuck Wendig's "Aftermath" trilogy tells a key story of the build-up to The Force Awakens. And the last book, Aftermath: Empire's End, dropped some tantalizing hints about Snoke's origins and identity.
Out In The Unknown Regions
Stirred on by the Dark Side, Palpatine sought to unlock their secrets of the Unknown Regions, a territory in space so dangerous that the Old Republic hadn't even managed to chart it.
"Outside the known galaxy is an unexplored infinity, Palpatine explained, one closed off by a labyrinth of solar storms, rogue magnetospheres, black holes, gravity wells, and things far stranger. Any who tried to conquer that maze did not survive. The ships were obliterated, or returned to the galaxy devoid of travelers.
Communications from those explorers were incomprehensible, either shot through with such static as to make the content useless, or filled with enough inane babble to serve as a perfectly clear sign that the explorer had gone utterly mad out there in isolation."
And so Palpatine secretly established an observatory on Jakku, one dedicated to gradually mapping the Unknown Regions. This, according to Gallius Rax, was why Palpatine took in the Chiss strategist Grand Admiral Thrawn — Thrawn's knowledge of the Unknown Regions gave Palpatine a unique window into them, a chance to map out a part of the galaxy that nobody knew existed.
But why did he do this?
A Dangerous Presence
As he grew in the Dark Side, Palpatine had sensed a presence — one waiting in the Unknown Regions, watching over the galaxy.
"The Emperor was convinced that something waited for him out there — some origin of the Force, some dark presence formed of malevolent substance. He said he could feel the waves of it radiating out now that the way was clear. The Emperor called it a signal — conveniently one that only he could hear. Even his greatest enforcer, Vader, seemed oblivious to it, and Vader also claimed mastery over the dark Force, did he not? Rax believed Palpatine had gone mad."
Given that the First Order would be established in the Unknown Regions, it's safe to assume that Supreme Leader Snoke himself is the being that Palpatine sensed. If this is the case, then Snoke is no mere Sith Lord — instead, he's something even the Sith didn't know was there, so powerful that Palpatine considered him to be, potentially, "some origin of the Force."
We know that Lucasfilm is diving deep into the lore of the Force — Luke has been meditating on Ahch-To, we've had whispers and hints that we'll see the ancient Jedi world of Ilum in The Last Jedi, and films and novels have happily been diving into new, obscure Force cults. It seems pretty clear from this that Snoke is no Sith — he's something new, something terrifyingly powerful. Is this why Luke retreated to the first Jedi Temple, to learn a truth so ancient that the Jedi Order had forgotten it over the millennia, leaving the galaxy vulnerable to Snoke?
In one of the flashback scenes in Empire's End, Palpatine tells Gallius Rax about different game-pieces in the Star Wars equivalent of Chess. He refers, though, to one piece known as the 'Outcast', a piece so powerful, so "anarchic", that it was banished.
Rax returns to this metaphor time and again, considering whether Palpatine was referring to Rax's own role. I'd suggest, though, that it may form a hint of Snoke. Empire's End offers subtle hints that Palpatine may even have contacted this presence in the Unknown Regions through his observatory on Jakku, and if so it's entirely possible that he was telling Rax to go to the Outcast should the Emperor be dethroned.
Seeking An Apprentice
We know from the novelization of The Force Awakens that Kylo Ren wasn't Snoke's first apprentice; he'd been seeking a perfect apprentice for many years, and settled upon the grandson of Darth Vader when he sensed the balance of Light and Dark within him.
Intriguingly, Empire's End offers hints that Snoke sensed this even before Ben Solo had been born. In one nightmarish scene, a half-dreaming Leia struggles with the sense that something dark and powerful is watching her, focused upon her unborn son; Ben Solo leaps in her womb, and she believes he's reacting to her own fear, but perhaps even the baby sensed the watchful gaze of Snoke.