The Thrawn legacy: From page to screen, the greatest addition to ‘Star Wars’ mythology
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—or 44 years ago in US cinemas on May 25, to be exact—a phenomenon was born. Today, we know the release as Episode IV: A New Hope but back when it came out in 1977, the film was more prominently known by the title which permeates throughout the world today: Star Wars.
Rather than ramble about the continuing stories of lightsabers, Death Stars, X-Wings, and the Force, however, I turn today to the contributions the medium of books has had on the multimedia cash cow that is modern-day Star Wars. I turn, more precisely, to one particular character who originated as part of the Expanded Universe (EU) books, which have since become synonymous with the positive aspects of extending these stories beyond the original trilogy of movies—that character is Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Thrawn (native name: Mitth'raw'nuruodo), a member of the mysterious Chiss species of Star Wars myth, with his pale-blue skin and bloodshot red-eyes, hails from the Unknown Regions of the galaxy. Thirty years ago this May, this character debuted in Timothy Zahn's seminal Heir to the Empire (Bantam, 1991), which had the thankless task of breathing new life into the franchise nearly a decade after the original trilogy of films had concluded.
Not only did the book launch the vaunted line of Star Wars Expanded Universe works, it also managed to introduce concepts such as the idyllic central city of Coruscant, which would later be integrated into the prequel films in the late 1990s. The book, together with sequel novels Dark Force Rising (Bantam, 1992) and The Last Command (Bantam, 1993)—with the tactically adept Grand Admiral as the central antagonist all throughout—form the iconic Thrawn trilogy. The influence of these books can even be seen in several modern day epics like the Mass Effect video games series, and in lists like NPR's 2011 ranking of the greatest works of science fiction and fantasy, where the trilogy placed 88th, as voted by over 60,000 participants.
The original Thrawn trilogy is by far my favourite book series associated with Star Wars, and not only because my oldest friend gave me the first two while my girlfriend gifted me the third as a birthday gift. The character of Thrawn outsmarting the heroes we grew up watching on the screen (Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa, etc.), with his strategic decision-making and intellect to revive the Empire five years after Palpatine's defeat, truly broadened the horizons of where Star Wars could go in the future. The character highlighted the benefits of continuing this space-faring narrative in a creative manner with a contrasting yet formidable foe even after the biggest threat had seemingly been vanquished in Return of the Jedi (1983) (Rise of the Skywalker (2019) notwithstanding). While Thrawn is obviously on the 'bad' side of the spectrum, he is not overtly villainous in any of his appearances. Discovering that shade of grey in a fictional world which, up until then, dealt in absolutes of Light and Dark sides of the Force, really opened up the possibilities for the narrative. The character's inherent cool factor is actually more profound in how his methodical observations aboard the Star Destroyer Chimaera always keep him one step ahead of the protagonists.
Moreover, Thrawn's impact cannot be overstated considering that even after Disney bought out the franchise's intellectual property and rendered the EU books as "Legends" (read: non-canon), his popularity and the dynamism of his encounters with the Rebel Alliance forced the powers-that-be to reintroduce the character back into canon status by inserting him into the Star Wars: Rebels animated series. New novels diving deeper into the backstory of the enigmatic Chiss were released in the last decade, of which Thrawn: Alliances (Del Rey, 2018) remains a notable highlight, showcasing the first meeting between the novel namesake and Anakin Skywalker, as well as his team-up with his transformed (and more well-known) alter-ego, Darth Vader.
The staying power of Thrawn, and his immersion into the mainline Star Wars continuity (further enforced by Jedi Ahsoka Tano seeking him out in the second season of the excellent television series The Mandalorian), clearly highlights how powerful the medium of books can be when truly enhancing stories as well as characters. Even if they perfectly cast Jason Isaacs as the live-action Thrawn (fingers crossed) to take the baton from Lars Mikkelsen's animated turn as the feared Chiss, the written word of the numerous books preceding these developments laid the foundation for this character as the first alien figure to achieve the Imperial rank of Grand Admiral in the lore.
However, it must be stated that some sects of the fandom do not see Thrawn's presence across the multimedia properties in the positive light that I do. They point to the complacency that the EU and now the present day-Star Wars literary works suffer from by almost exclusively focusing on either Thrawn or Palpatine as the adversaries. This is seen in the Dark Empire series (Dark Horse Comics) where the clone of the Emperor is resurrected (yes, Rise of the Skywalker wasn't the first), and is even more egregious with yet another Thrawn-centric trilogy (Thrawn Ascendancy) which is in the pipeline to be completed later this year. With that being said, it is my personal belief that people keep returning to these characters because of how significant they are and how instrumental the original works they appeared in continue to be. The fact that the first Thrawn book still resonates in 2021 as much as it did in 1991 almost compels the reader to learn more about this magnetic figure, and it compels the writers (especially the creator, Zahn) to continue churning out more stories with him as the central figure, instead of less interesting foes like the Yuuzhan Vong.
When I thought about the upcoming Star Wars anniversary today, all I could think of was Thrawn, and how his origin traces from the medium of books. It is a true signifier of how important books still remain to this day in enhancing, and in some cases improving, the stories we watch on screen. This is especially apt for Star Wars, as its books often fill in the empty spaces left by the films. This can probably be attributed to the emotional attachment that the medium demands by its nature, as well as the personal investment which is required for reading anything at all. For Star Wars fans, and even book readers who have never been interested in watching the films, all of Timothy Zahn's works featuring Thrawn can be entertaining and informative reads. They can transport you to a galaxy far, far away in a medium that cannot ever be replicated completely (seriously, how do you explain in live-action or animated mediums that Jorus C'baoth and Joruus C'baoth are not the same?—and no, that's not a typo).
If possible, one should also check out the newer offerings by Zahn, beginning with Star Wars: Thrawn (Del Rey, 2017) chronicling his origin as part of the Chiss Ascendancy and his exile, which led him to the Galactic Empire in order to get the full picture of what made the fearsome Chiss such a compelling threat and a very complicated character.
If you are a Star Wars fan, you should find out for yourself why Grand Admiral Thrawn remains such a fan-favourite three decades after his appearance, despite not appearing in any Star Wars film (yet). Without him, an entire line of Star Wars novels and comic books would be non-existent. Unlike elsewhere in the fandom, his is a character both Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader respected in fiction, and one who deserves our attention in reality.
Mir Zariful Karim has written for The Prestige Magazine and Daily Star Books. He currently works for Antopolis, and maintains his diet of Coca-Cola, Star Wars, and professional wrestling.