Who Is Thrawn?

Here's what you need to know about the Empire's master strategist -- and why millions of voices cried out in happiness upon news of his return.

When the Star Wars Rebels Season Three trailer — first screened at Star Wars Celebration last month — revealed Grand Admiral Thrawn, a wave of giddy excitement washed over many Star Wars fans. Thrawn is coming back! It was very exciting and welcome news. But, if you’re new to Star Wars or didn’t read the Thrawn novels, you might be wondering… Who is this Thrawn guy anyway, and why is everyone so excited? StarWars.com is here to rescue you and fill you in.

The Thrawn Trilogy:

  • Heir to the Empire (1991)
  • Dark Force Rising (1992)
  • The Last Command (1993)

Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, and it was a long break for Star Wars fans who lived in the intervening years of Nintendo, VHS, and cassette mixes until 1991’s release of Heir to the Empire. Written by Timothy Zahn, Heir to the Empire brought back Star Wars storytelling and essentially birthed the Expanded Universe that we now know as Legends.

It also introduced one Grand Admiral Thrawn.

“You couldn’t have grown up a Star Wars fan without encountering Thrawn in Heir to the Empire,” Dave Filoni, executive producer of Rebels, said at Star Wars Celebration. “It was a dark time when there weren’t any more movies, and it blew our minds that there could be more.” Set five years after Return of the Jedi, Heir to the Empire (which brought forth iconic Legends characters Mara Jade and Talon Karrdefinds, as well) finds that Grand Admiral Thrawn has inherited the remains of the Empire following Palpatine’s death. His absence in the original trilogy is explained by his assignment from the Emperor to secure the border of the galaxy at the Unknown Regions, the area of space past the Outer Rim, thus keeping him too far away and out of contact to have been involved in battles within the galaxy.

Returning from his assignment to find the Empire in complete disarray and severely compromised, Thrawn shows himself to be a very different sort of villain than Darth Vader and the Emperor. For one, he’s not a Force user. He’s reserved and cerebral, described as a dark haired, blue skinned, red-eyed humanoid alien with a modulated voice, a Chiss from beyond the Outer Rim. Despite the Imperial Navy’s species discrimination, he has managed to earn the very highest rank of Grand Admiral. He’s as ruthless and cold as Darth Vader, willing to sacrifice innocents for what he believes is a greater good of the Empire. However, rather than simply using brute force and intimidation, he uses his ability to outthink, out plan, and outmaneuver the New Republic, using the crumbs the Empire has left after the destruction of the second Death Star. He surpasses Palpatine’s manipulative cunning by studying his enemies carefully. He learns their history, their culture, and especially their art. To Thrawn, studying a culture’s art reveals a people’s deepest desires and thus their weaknesses, knowledge Thrawn uses to predict and exploit their actions. He is terrifying, and doesn’t need a lightsaber or Force lightning to be so.

In the trilogy, Thrawn takes data from various sources and pieces together seemingly random bits of information to create an audacious plan to restore the Empire. He finds ysalamir, a Force-repelling animal, to protect himself from Force users, he uses an insane Jedi clone who can use the Force to augment Imperial troops, he recreates a clone army, and finds a cache of dreadnoughts to boost the size of his fleet.

Unlike Vader, who ruled by fear and frequently rewarded bad news with death, Thrawn, while brutally intolerant of the lazy and incompetent, asked his men for their suggestions and empowered them to follow through, promoting those with brains and initiative. He was willing to retreat and lose a battle, unwilling to needlessly sacrifice his men and resources. He almost succeeds in crushing the New Republic, but dies during the climactic Battle of Bilbringi. Even in death, stabbed in the back by his own bodyguard, Thrawn remains icy cool to the end. His last words: “But…it was so artistically done.”

Outbound Flight (2006)
Star Wars Adventure Journal 7, 11, 12-13 (1995, 1997)
Choices of One (2011)
Crisis of Faith (2011, novella included with Heir To The Empire: 20th Anniversary Edition)
These later stories reveal Thrawn’s motivation to rebuild the Empire and show his sense of honor, loyalty, and friendship, even a dry sense of humor. Thrawn’s character becomes more nuanced, less villainous and even more interesting.

Outbound Flight is set approximately 36 years before Heir to the Empire. Thrawn is introduced as Commander Mitth’raw’nuruodo, an officer of the Chiss Ascendency. The story chronicles his encounters with members of the Galactic Republic — smugglers, Palpatine, and the insane Jedi Jorus C’baoth, who tries to Force choke Thrawn. Palpatine informs Thrawn of the presence of Yuuzhan Vong, aliens lurking on the edges of the Wild Space, set on destroy all life in the galaxy. Thrawn’s strategic thinking and ability to outwit his enemies is evident, and he is also shown to have a strong sense of justice by protecting the weak and those he considers friends. Chiss society is presented as cool and rational, as well as egalitarian with a female admiral. Thrawn’s brother sacrifices his own life to protect humans from the Republic and Thrawn himself.

In the short stories originally published in Star Wars Adventure Journal, Thrawn is exiled from the Chiss, by his own design, to an uninhabited planet. Anticipating the visit of an Imperial ship, he is able to sneak aboard. He so impresses Captain Voss Parck that he is invited to join the Imperial Navy. In the second set of stories in Star Wars Adventure Journal, Thrawn, colluding with Darth Vader, disguises himself as Mandalorian bounty hunter Jodo Kast. Again, he cleverly outmaneuvers his enemies and tactically uses allies to take down a mobster associated with the Black Sun gang. He shows that not only is he a mastermind in the war room, but he’s fast and handy in the field, loyal to his friends and ruthless with his enemies.

Choices of One, set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, introduces Thrawn’s archnemesis Nusa Esva, an alien warlord from the Unknown Regions. In a battle of wits reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, Esva pits Imperial and Rebel forces, hoping to humiliate Thrawn.  Ultimately Thrawn outsmarts Esva, and the line between the good guys and bad guys — between Thrawn, Mara Jade, Imperial officers, stormtroopers, and Rebels — gets blurred. In Crisis of Faith, set one year before Heir to the Empire, Thrawn finally manages to defeat Nusa Esva so he can focus on rebuilding the Empire, which he believes is the best line of defense against the threat of the Yuuzhan Vong.

The Hand of Thrawn:

  • Specter of the Past (1997)
  • Vision of the Future (1998)

Ten years after Thrawn’s death, the Hand of Thrawn duology shows Thrawn’s multifaceted legacy, which includes sleeper cells of clones and the creation of the Empire of the Hand, an organization of Imperials and Chiss working together to protect the Outer Regions. Predicting his own death, Thrawn has even cloned himself, though the clone is inadvertently killed by Mara Jade and Luke Skywalker. Later in Legends, characters and technology from Empire of the Hand, like Chiss Clawcraft, play critical roles in defending the galaxy from Yuuzhan Vong.

Today, Thrawn still carries a lasting legacy as one of Star Wars‘ greatest and most complex antagonists. As Timothy Zahn wrote in Heir to the Empire: The 20th Anniversary Edition, “He’s competent and capable, enough so that his troops can be assured that they have the best possible chance of winning whatever battle they’re being sent into. He cares about his troops, and they know he won’t sacrifice them for nothing. And he’s driven by logic and reason, not anger or ego or wounded pride. Throw in the semi-mystical art thing (through which he can anticipate his enemies’ moves) and make him an alien (because the Emperor disliked aliens, and would never give such a rank to one unless he was really, really good)…and when you’ve done all that, Grand Admiral Thrawn simply falls out of the equation.” It’s easy to see why we love to hate him.


There you have it. Thrawn was clearly a tactical genius, and a master commanding officer. But was he a total villain? Was he simply trying to do the right thing the wrong way?

It should be noted that as the above stories are part of Legends, an imprint of older tales, Star Wars Rebels and overall Star Wars continuity may take Thrawn down a different path. As such, it will be fascinating to see how he is portrayed in the upcoming season of Rebels and Timothy Zahn’s book, Thrawn, set to be published in 2017.

Heir To The Empire: 20th Anniversary Edition, Timothy Zahn, 2011
Star Wars: The Essential Reader’s Companion, Pablo Hidalgo, 2012

Linda is a physician who loves writing, yoga, horses, Star Wars and style. She’s a contributor at FANgirlblog.com and has been a panelist at Star Wars Celebration and GeekGirlCon. Follow Linda on Twitter and Instagram.