From Legends to Canon: Thrawn’s Journey Through Star Wars History

Bryan Young
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Practically since his debut in Timothy Zahn’s 1991 novel Heir to the Empire, Grand Admiral Thrawn has been one of the most popular villains in Star Wars. This was rather astonishing due to the fact that for the longest time he’d only appeared in novels. Heir to the Empire kicked off a trilogy of books featuring Thrawn that ended in his artful demise. Two more books were written to deal with the specter of his past and the threat of his return.

When it was announced that there would be a new trilogy of Star Wars movies, many hoped that the new, emerging villain would be Grand Admiral Thrawn and that both generations of Star Wars heroes would unite to fight against him. What became the Star Wars sequel trilogy went a different direction and, in April of 2014, the books and comics that had been published prior to that, formerly known as the Expanded Universe — including all of Thrawn’s appearances — were designated as existing in the separate Legends timeline, meaning they firmly were not considered part of the current continuity.

Now though, after making a long-desired move into canon via animation, Thrawn is poised to make his live-action debut this August in Ahsoka, following multiple mentions on The Mandalorian, including in the latest episode. Let’s take a look back at Thrawn’s unusual path to becoming a Star Wars Legend in more ways than one.

The Original Heir to the Empire

The cover art for the original novel, Heir to the Empire

For context, in case anyone needs a refresher, the original Heir to the Empire trilogy took place approximately five years after the events of Return of the Jedi. The New Republic had worked hard to establish itself in the wake of the Empire and the threat seemed quelled. But Grand Admiral Thrawn had been posted to the outer parts of the galaxy and made his strategic return, hoping to destabilize the New Republic and bring about the return of Imperial Order.

With the help of a twisted clone of a Jedi, Joruus C’Baoth , Grand Admiral Thrawn launched his grand plan that seemed impossible to beat. Naturally, the heroes of the rebellion led by Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Leia Organa Solo, are able to defeat Thrawn, but not on their own. Thrawn’s own bodyguard, Rukh, betrays him and the plans fall apart.

Heir to the Empire was so well-received that it was even adapted into a comic book and there were Roleplaying Game supplements published to allow fans to play in the book’s sandbox. Grand Admiral Thrawn even got his own action figure, a rarity for characters that were introduced solely in the books. Because of all of this praise and expanded treatment, a mystique grew around Thrawn and he quickly became as revered as the other villains in the Star Wars mythos.

The story, though, didn’t quite fit with what J.J. Abrams had planned for The Force Awakens and so it passed into Legend and fans wondered if one of their favorite villains would ever enter the new canon being established by Lucasfilm after George Lucas sold the company to Disney.

Star Wars Rebels

Things changed for Thrawn when Dave Filoni announced at Star Wars Celebration Europe in 2016 that Thrawn would be stepping into the world of Star Wars animation as the next big threat in Star Wars Rebels. Not only that, but Timothy Zahn was hard at work writing a brand new book starring the character, this one firmly rooted in canon.

Thrawn was quickly established as a brilliant tactical leader and strategist, an anomaly inside the Imperial apparatus as both a non-human and an unrivaled thinker. Thrawn works to get the TIE Defender program off the ground and root out the rebels on Lothal, led by Hera Syndulla . Laying trap after trap for them, Thrawn lures them into a final confrontation. Ezra Bridger, still reeling from the death of his master, Kanan Jarrus, is forced to come up with a plan that will somehow counter Thrawn’s brilliance. Ezra sacrifices himself, surrendering to Thrawn. Once aboard the bridge of Thrawn’s flagship, Chimaera, Ezra uses the Force and his connection to the mysterious purrgil to attach themselves to Thrawn’s ship and they all go to hyperspace. Ezra, Thrawn, and Thrawn’s entire fleet are whisked off into the unknown parts of the galaxy, perhaps never to return.

Since Star Wars Rebels is set before the Battle of Yavin, Thrawn’s resurgence later in the timeline – as established in the Legends books he first appeared in – was something a lot of fans still hoped for, especially with the show ending on the promise that Ahsoka Tano and Sabine Wren would find them eventually.

Back to Bookshelves

The cover of Thrawn: Alliances by Timothy Zahn

In addition to his appearance on Star Wars Rebels, Timothy Zahn ultimately wrote not one but six new canon-set books about Thrawn to date, each of them about a portion of his history. First up was a trilogy, which place during Thrawn’s rise in the Imperial Navy and in between the events of Star Wars Rebels, adding nuance to the story and deepening Thrawn’s character. They begin in a mysterious way. Thrawn is found stranded on a planet, an exile of his people, but a brilliant mind and quick study. He has certain information that might grant him an audience with the Emperor and he exploits it expertly. Thrawn explains that he once worked with Anakin Skywalker. This was enough to intrigue the Emperor and begin Thrawn’s career.

The second trilogy of books goes back even further and offers us a true window into Thrawn’s character, showing us his position in the Chiss Ascendancy. As a ranking officer of the Chiss fleet, Thrawn saw an external threat from other parts of the galaxy that could harm his homeworld. Going against orders to keep the Chiss safe, this story explains how Thrawn came to be exiled and what his true intentions are.

These six books are truly some of the best that Timothy Zahn has ever written. I know many people love the Heir to the Empire books, but Zahn grew significantly as an author over the intervening 20 to 30 years and created much tighter stories. You’re going to want to read them, especially as you prepare for Thrawn’s appearances in the universe of Ahsoka and The Mandalorian. 

The Return of the Heir

In the world being built by Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, the threat of Thrawn’s return feels like just a whisper. The first time we heard Thrawn’s name uttered in live-action came in an episode of The Mandalorian’s second season, where the Jedi Knight Ahsoka Tano demanded to know where Thrawn was of the villainous Morgan Elsbeth. 

We heard nothing about him again until the penultimate episode of The Mandalorian’s third season, when Captain Pellaeon assures Moff Gideon that Thrawn’s return is imminent and he will have sufficiently gathered his strength to unite the Imperial remnants and return. As it stood, Moff Gideon remained unconvinced.

But Ahsoka Tano knows he’s a threat and he’s out there, heir to the new Empire, and she’s intent on taking him down before he becomes a bigger problem.

An Admirer of the Arts

Grand Admiral Thrawn in Star Wars Rebels

What is it that makes people respond so strongly to Thrawn? It might be because he’s a different sort of villain than had ever been in Star Wars. Most of the baddies in Star Wars have tended to be lightsaber-wielding maniacs with at least an occasional bloodlust.

Thrawn was much more like the Sherlock Holmes villain Moriarty, brilliant and capable. He was also a skilled tactician in a way that seemed rare for villains of the Empire. He could outthink his opponents by understanding and empathizing with them. He would study the art of a culture to understand their tactics and ways of thinking and destroy them with that knowledge. That was scary for a villain in Star Wars and fans responded to it.

Lars Mikkelsen as Thrawn in Ahsoka

There was a gentle side to Thrawn, too. He cared about the people in his command and protection and he cared about art and culture. These made him even scarier in that he would appreciate the art of a culture, use it to better understand the limitations of their thinking, and use that knowledge to destroy them. In Star Wars Rebels, Thrawn used the Syndulla family kalikori, an object of deep personal value to Hera Syndulla, to lure her into his clutches. He even learns more about Hera specifically by studying the art produced by her family.

His signature tactic, the Marg Sabl maneuver, was inspired by a blossoming flower, but hiding superior numbers of fighters behind a capital ship until they can blossom around and swarm an enemy that has come in too close. Interestingly enough, that maneuver was something he learned from Anakin Skywalker who learned it from Ahsoka Tano. Most villains wouldn’t care about such things–too often it’s the art and culture a villain wants to destroy, but not Thrawn, which sets him apart from so many other villains.

With it confirmed that he will appear in live-action in the new Ahsoka show, it will be exciting to see how his character deepens and how many more fans fall in love with his particular brand of villainy.

Bryan Young
Bryan Young is an award-winning author, filmmaker, journalist, and comics writer. He's written for outlets ranging from StarWars.Com and The Huffington Post to Syfy and /Film. His latest novel is BattleTech: A Question of Survival.