The newest Star Wars book, Thrawn, gives the modern Disney canon its first longform novel about one of the most intriguing characters in the history of the Expanded Universe. While the book goes some way to fleshing out the character that most new fans will only know from Star Wars: Rebels, there’s a lot of interesting backstory behind Grand Admiral Thrawn and his impact on the Star Wars universe as a whole. Many of Thrawn’s older tales have been relegated to non-canon Legends, but they’re still very interesting reads. The character’s first appearance, in the series of books that came to be known as The Thrawn Trilogy, kicked off the Expanded Universe in a big way, and left a lasting impression on fans that has allowed the character’s popularity to endure for decades after his initial appearance. To help you get the most out of the new novel, here are 17 interesting and little-known facts about Grand Admiral Thrawn.
17. THRAWN WAS ENVISIONED AS THE OPPOSITE OF THE EMPEROR
Believe it or not, there was a time when the rules of the Star Wars universe weren’t as firmly entrenched as they are now. Back in this bygone era, not every antagonist was necessarily an evil wizard with a fondness for dressing all in black and ruling the galaxy with an iron fist of fear. Following the logical popularity of Return of the Jedi, novelist Timothy Zahn was given the difficult task of attempting to follow up the original trilogy of movies with a brand new set of Star Wars stories. Of course, Emperor Palpatine and his attack dog, Darth Vader, were off the table as a result of their recent demise, meaning that Zahn had to go back to the drawing board to invent a villain that would drive his new stories further. In a genius stroke of storytelling, Zahn decided to create a character that, while still terrifying in his own way, was as far removed from The Emperor and Darth Vader as possible. Instead of wearing all black, Grand Admiral Thrawn dresses in white. Instead of motivating his troops through fear, Zahn uses battlefield promotions as a carrot to dangle in front of his lieutenants to get the most out of them. The result is a character who’s every bit as iconic as Emperor Palpatine (despite not having received as much publicity), but who introduces unique new ideas to the Star Wars formula. Eventually, subsequent writers would fall back on copying existing Sith characters, but this merely serves to make Thrawn all the more compelling by comparison.
16. THRAWN KICKED OFF THE EXPANDED UNIVERSE
There were very few stories set in the Star Wars universe that were released before Timothy Zahn’s book, Heir to the Empire, arrived on store shelves. Splinter of the Mind’s Eye and The Star Wars Holiday Special aside, the only place that fans of the series could experience the adventures of a galaxy far, far away was in George Lucas’ trilogy of movies. Naturally, when approaching the task of expanding this universe to create more stories, Zahn copies the pre-proven formula, writing a trilogy of novels that each told a larger story, mirroring the serial format of the Star Wars movies, and wrapping everything up neatly at the end. These books went on to become the quintessential Expanded Universe tales, laying the framework for hundreds of other novels and stories that were told with the same characters. Had The Thrawn Trilogy, as it’s commonly known, not proven successful, it’s very likely that the entire Star Wars franchise would have withered away to nothing in the years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace. If Thrawn hadn’t been quite as compelling of a villain, there’s a good chance that the Star Wars Expanded Universe would have turned out to be every bit as sparse as the Indiana Jones wider canon. Such a concept doesn’t bear thinking about.
15. FANS THINK THRAWN’S NAME REFERENCES HIS CREATOR
The influences that go into the name of a Star Wars character aren’t always easy to trace. Nobody knows where the names “Watto” or “Nute Gunray” came from, and while we do know that “Luke” was George Lucas’ childhood nickname, the logic behind most of his characters’ names will probably never be explored. With Thrawn, though, many fans think that they have a clue. The Grand Admiral was initially created by Timothy Zahn, and some believe that, as with Luke Skywalker, this character might be named for his creator. Zahn does sound an awful lot like Thrawn, and it would make sense for the writer of Heir to the Empire to want to name himself after the coolest character in the book (naming Mara Jade “Timothy” probably wouldn’t have worked). Alas, this has never been confirmed and will probably always remain a rumor, but it’s nice to think that Zahn’s name is forever embedded in Star Wars canon, albeit in an altered form. He definitely earned it.
14. LUCASFILM HAS WANTED TO BRING THRAWN BACK FOR DECADES
The problem with a tight, well-written series of books that come to a conclusive and neat ending is that you have to say goodbye to your primary antagonist. In The Last Command, the third novel in the Thrawn Trilogy, everyone’s favorite blue-skinned Imperial is stabbed to death by one of his bodyguards, after it’s revealed that his dominion over the alien Noghri race is based entirely on a lie, and that Princess Leia of all people is their rightful ruler. But while this makes for a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, it’s clear that Timothy Zahn didn’t anticipate just how popular his character would become, leading Lucasfilm to try desperately to find a way to bring the character back to life long before the studio was sold to Disney. Back during the production of The Clone Wars animated series, producer Dave Filoni made plans to introduce Thrawn to the prequel series in order to bring some fun Expanded Universe flavor into the show. This idea was ultimately put on hold, but was revisited later in Star Wars Rebels, which is why Thrawn is now a key character in the CGI Star Wars mythos, after years of planning.
13. THRAWN OWNS THE HOLY GRAIL
Easter eggs connecting the Star Wars and Indiana Jones universes are not uncommon, but for the most part, they’re limited to pictograms of R2-D2 and C3PO in Raiders of the Lost Ark. There are far fewer cases of Indy references popping up in Star Wars, but if any character is going to pull off a connection between the two franchises, it’s Grand Admiral Thrawn. The Grand Admiral’s office is a treasure trove of hidden references to wider Star Wars canon, but the crowning jewel in his collection is the Holy Grail, as seen in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which can be seen on the left in the photo above. Hidden away in the shadows of the office, this isn’t merely a case of fan speculation, as the art director for Star Wars Rebels, Kilian Plunkett, has confirmed that the team really did sneak the Grail into the scene. Clearly, Thrawn’s collection of ancient artifacts is more impressive than anyone had realized – the only question that remains is how the Grand Admiral got hold of such a rarity!
12. THRAWN ALSO OWNS SOME STAR WARS CONCEPT ART
As if owning a universe-shattering piece of otherworldly Indiana Jones memorabilia isn’t enough, there’s also another fantastic piece of art in Thrawn’s gallery which goes so far as to break the fourth wall. Among his collection is a piece of concept art originally drawn by Ralph McQuarrie, the visual artist who crafted much of the look and feel of the Star Wars movies. McQuarrie’s work was influential in helping George Lucas to convince studio executives at Twentieth Century Fox that they should take a chance on his quaint little science fiction story, and the artist is responsible for designing Darth Vader, the Millennium Falcon, and C3PO, among many other characters. If you can think of something fantastic from A New Hope, there’s a good chance that it originated in one of Ralph McQuarrie’s paintings. Thrawn seems to think that the artist deserves high praise, as he has a piece of McQuarrie’s art gracing his wall. It’s best not to think too hard about the in-continuity explanation for McQuarrie’s artwork – supposedly, it fell through the same hole in time and space that brought the Holy Grail to Thrawn’s doorstep.
11. THRAWN CAMEOS IN PLENTY OF VIDEO GAMES
Considering the impact that Grand Admiral Thrawn has had on the Star Wars Expanded Universe on a whole, it’s no wonder that plenty of the media that’s now considered non-canon “Legends” material pays tribute to the iconic Imperial baddie. This extends to several video games, with Thrawn popping up, if briefly, in strategy games including Galactic Battlegrounds and Empire at War. These references make sense considering the subject matter of these games, wherein players command large armies of troops – after all, when ordering Imperial soldiers to attack an enemy, it makes sense that many players would feel like they’re fulfilling a Thrawn power fantasy. The Grand Admiral also appears in brief cameos in other games, though, including the zippy shooter TIE Fighter. Here, strategy and tactics are far from the intended gameplay design, but a subtle mention of Grand Admiral Thrawn ties this game together with the rest of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, even if the game itself is no longer considered canon.
10. THRAWN IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE FIRST ORDER
When The Force Awakens first released in theaters, Lucasfilm was deliberately vague about the events that had led the galaxy to its current state, with the First Order fighting against General Organa’s Resistance. Over time, though, more details have been filled in, including the explanation for how the First Order came to be. As Thrawn has become a more significant player in the new canon, his contributions to the story have been expanded. According to the Star Wars: Aftermath trilogy of books, Thrawn, himself from beyond the Outer Rim of known space, is the one who helps plot the Empire’s course to explore the Unknown Regions of the galaxy. In so doing, the remnants of the Empire have a place to hide away and regroup following the death of the Emperor, before returning as the First Order. It’s therefore as a result of Thrawn’s influences on the Empire that the First Order was able to rise to power. Fans are hopeful that this means the Grand Admiral is still alive in the time of the upcoming Episode 8, The Last Jedi, and that he could make an appearance in the modern films as a leader for the First Order.
9. THRAWN’S VOICE ACTOR WAS NOMINATED FOR AN ANNIE AWARD
It’s no small task to approach a character that’s primarily only ever been portrayed in silent media, such as novels, and attempt to give them a distinctive voice. Everyone will have their own impression of what a character like Thrawn will sound like, and voice actor Lars Mikkelsen had a lot of expectations to live up to when joining the cast of Rebels to provide a believably eloquent yet imposing voice for the popular character. Thankfully, Mikkelsen did a fantastic job with Thrawn, to the point that he was nominated for an Annie Award for his work voicing the character on Rebels. Annie Awards celebrate successes in animation, so being nominated for one is a prestigious experience that proves just how powerful Mikkelsen’s performance is. Mikkelsen was nominated in the category of “Outstanding Achievement, Voice Acting in an Animated TV/Broadcast Production”, and while he ultimately lost out to Carlos Alazaraqui’s work on The Mr. Peabody and Sherman Show, he’s certainly established himself as the definitive take on the character — at least from a vocal perspective.
8. THRAWN’S VOICE ACTOR IS GALEN ERSO/HANNIBAL’S BROTHER
You might have guessed this already, but Lars Mikkelsen, the actor who provides the voice of Thrawn in Rebels, is indeed the older brother of acclaimed actor (and the subject of Hideo Kojima’s mancrush) Mads Mikkelsen – himself another Star Wars alum, after playing Jyn Erso’s father Galen in Rogue One. While not as famous as his younger brother, Lars Mikkelsen has had a prestigious career filled with appearances in plenty of popular television shows. He played Viktor Petrov in seven episodes of House of Cards, and took on the role of the villainous media magnate and mind palace user Charles Magnussen in season three of Sherlock, providing a suitably disturbing baddie to follow up Andrew Scott’s Moriarty. With credentials like these, it’s no wonder the team behind Rebels thought that Mikkelsen would be a perfect fit to voice Grand Admiral Thrawn, and if the villain ever comes to the big screen, Lucasfilm could do worse than painting Hannibal’s brother blue to create a truly unsettling live-action version of the character.
7. THRAWN WAS AMONG THE FIRST NON-MOVIE CHARACTERS TO BECOME AN ACTION FIGURE
Star Wars is all about the toys. Both George Lucas himself and the Disney corporation have made plenty of money selling action figures to eager fans, and we’re more than happy to snap up whatever new toys arrive on the market, regardless of whether or not the characters have a significant role in the Star Wars movies. Back in 1998, Kenner released an expansion to their popular Power of the Force range of action figures that featured a selection of characters from the Expanded Universe. These included a clone of the Emperor and an evil Luke Skywalker from the Dark Empire comic book range, as well as multiple figures based on characters from the Thrawn Trilogy. The Grand Admiral himself is represented in the range, alongside other characters introduced by the books, including Mara Jade. While these figures were beaten to the market by toys based on the Shadows of the Empire video game and novel, Thrawn’s figure still remains one of the earliest examples of a Star Wars toy that’s based on a character who doesn’t appear in any of the movies, paving the way for far more action figures based on the Expanded Universe in the coming years.
6. THRAWN WORKED WITH ANAKIN SKYWALKER
It seems that Darth Vader has met pretty much every significant character across all of Star Wars canon, and happened to be in the right place at the right time to rub elbows with major players even long before becoming the Emperor’s right-hand man. The new Thrawn novel provides details of how Thrawn once met the young Jedi before his fateful duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi on Mustafar, and hints that, unlike most of the galaxy, Thrawn is aware of Darth Vader’s former life. The new novel, which was written by Timothy Zahn in his return to writing for Star Wars, contains several vague references to past books by Zahn – just enough to hint that these events in Thrawn’s backstory still took place in the new canon, but not enough to nail things down. There’s every possibility that Zahn will return to the series later to provide more details and stories about Thrawn’s past, but for the moment, it seems that Rebels and other cinematic Star Wars stories will be dealing with the character’s future.
5. THRAWN IS AVAILABLE AS A LEGO FIGURE
Something that longtime fans could only dream about happening for many years, after decades of waiting, Thrawn has finally been made available in Lego form. The ultimate benchmark of Star Wars figure popularity (and cultural relevance in general), modern Lego sets feature a wide variety of characters from throughout modern canon, including several sets based on Rebels. One such set, 75170 The Phantom, comes with three figures – Kanan Jarrus, C1-10P (better known as Chopper), and Admiral Thrawn. Interestingly, the name of Thrawn’s figure is technically incorrect. Described simply as “Admiral Thrawn”, the figure doesn’t represent Thrawn’s full rank within the Empire as Grand Admiral. This could be a simple mistake, or a deliberate decision to keep the figure’s name shorter for identification purposes. As Admiral Thrawn has limited connections with the Phantom in the Rebels television show, this appears to be an example of Lego Master Builders wanting to squeeze a popular character into a set, one which is greatly appreciated by fans who’ve been waiting a long time to see the character in the flesh.
4. THRAWN INSPIRED AN ENTIRE RACE IN THE OLD REPUBLIC
When Grand Admiral Thrawn first appeared in Heir to the Empire, he was the first of his species to turn up in a Star Wars story. Naturally, with the popularity of the character, his people, the Chiss, began seeping through into other stories, appearing as a species with a large empire that exists just beyond the borders of known space. In modern canon, the Chiss are still a mostly unknown force, rarely entering Republic or Imperial space. But in the story of BioWare’s mass multiplayer role-playing video game, The Old Republic, the Chiss are far more connected to the story, and are available as a playable species for gamers to choose. To a certain extent, this makes sense within the confines of the game, as the story takes place thousands of years in the past during a war between the Republic and Sith forces that appear from the Unknown Regions. At the same time, it is a little strange that, following this war, everyone in the Republic instantly forgot that the Chiss ever existed. Star Wars can be strange sometimes.
3. THRAWN JOINED THE EMPIRE WITH NOBLE INTENTIONS
Considering the Empire’s xenophobic stance on alien life forms, Grand Admiral Thrawn stands out as something of an anomaly. His bright blue skin and glowing eyes stand in direct contrast to the predominantly white human soldiers and lieutenants of the Empire, making his presence among their ranks very perplexing. Thrawn’s reason for joining the Empire in spite of their policy against non-humans is because he believes there’s a greater threat hiding beyond the borders of known space. This could suggest a major plot point for a future Star Wars movie, or a hint that the Vuuzhan Vong from the Legends continuity may eventually appear in modern canon as well. For the Emperor’s part, his reason for relying on Thrawn, besides his skills as a strategist, are because nobody available knows the Unknown Regions better. This knowledge proves useful, no matter Thrawn’s origin – although he’s hardly given a place of prominence among the ranks of the Imperials.
2. THRAWN WAS THE FIRST LEGENDS CHARACTER TO BECOME CANON
Back when Disney first purchased the Star Wars franchise, the decision was quickly made to wipe the slate clean and start over with a brand new canon. Aside from the movies and CGI television shows, no characters or events were considered in-continuity with the new universe, in order to give new teams of writers the freedom to craft original stories that didn’t need to fit within decades of lore. For a while, it seemed like everything old had been completely thrown out – until, that is, Grand Admiral Thrawn was confirmed to be appearing in Star Wars: Rebels. Since then, the floodgates have opened, and more characters previously deemed non-canon have made their return. Who knows? If the decision hadn’t been made to bring back Thrawn, we might not have ever seen these classic characters again – so it’s worth celebrating the Grand Admiral’s pioneering return, even if it doesn’t seem like Mara Jade will be coming back anytime soon.
1. CORUSCANT MADE ITS DEBUT ALONGSIDE THRAWN
Back when George Lucas was planning his prequel trilogy of Star Wars movies, he made the decision to fit the stories in around existing Expanded Universe stories. Part of that involved including the planet of Coruscant, the home of the Empire (and the Republic before it) in Episode I. The planet had originally appeared in Heir to the Empire, wherein the New Republic has set themselves up in the former Imperial palace that had been built on the ruins of the Jedi temple. In Heir to the Empire, Thrawn makes use of a series of plants that decorate the palace, which react to sound by changing color, in order to listen in on the conversations that the Republic are engaging in. Through this sneaky tactic, he’s able to spy on Luke, Leia, and the other heroes, and predict their actions. This element fo the story has never appeared in other media, but the planet of Coruscant has gone on to be hugely important to the Star Wars series as a whole, and it’s all thanks to the first book to introduce Grand Admiral Thrawn.
As exciting as Thrawn’s history might be, though, it’s exciting to see where the character goes in future. Now resurrected and able to escape his untimely assassination, Grand Admiral Thrawn is free to appear time and again throughout the Star Wars stories that will be told in coming years. While not all elements of his backstory have made it into modern canon, the future is looking bright for this red-eyed Imperial, and his continued opportunities to make life difficult for the Rebel Alliance and the New Republic.