Grand Admiral Thrawn: Separating Man From Myth

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As the primary antagonist of the inaugural nineties Expanded Universe trilogy, Grand Admiral Thrawn presented a different sort of Imperial villain – one who was intellectual, collected, and yet not darkly sinister. Thrawn stands out and his Empire seems to take on a different tone from the Empire of Palpatine. He presents a better way – order without cruelty, governance without megalomania. Inspired by Napoleon, Rommel, Alexander the Great, and others, Grand Admiral Thrawn is nigh-invincible – defeated but for circumstances – and with him dies the dream of a better Empire. But is all of that true? We’re a pretty big fan of Thrawn – in fact, he’s one of the early Imperial characters we first latched onto as a villain worthy of respect and admiration (having read Kevin J. Anderson and Mike Stackpole prior to Zahn). He was unlike any Star Wars villain to come before or since, and Thrawn very rightly generated a lot of buzz and excitement when his return to the Star Wars canon was announced at Celebration Europe this July. We wanted to say that first as a bit of a disclaimer – that we’re a big fan of Thrawn – before getting to the gist of this article: which is that Grand Admiral Thrawn is tremendously overrated. Now wait – this isn’t one of those “you should feel bad for liking this, and here’s all the reasons why you’re wrong” pieces. The thing about Thrawn is that he’s not perfect – he is flawed, and has made some pretty colossal blunders just in the Thrawn trilogy set of books.

Both in and out of universe, people tend to assume Thrawn is perfect and unbeatable. Out of universe, that can occasionally manifest into excessive fannishness or dislike for a character that is “better” than the film villains. In universe, that manifests in characters assuming that Thrawn is completely beyond the abilities of any of the protagonists to defeat. But Thrawn isn’t invincible – far from it. He makes assumptions, he makes convoluted plans that fail when the slightest thread is unraveled, and he ultimately creates a system that cannot outlast his own demise. He’s also every bit the villain Darth Vader and the Emperor were – he supports the Empire’s mission, and even though later EU books try to put his decision to serve the Emperor into a noble light, the truth is that he literally made a deal with the devil and agreed to serve him.

Here’s the trick though: that’s what makes Thrawn work, and that’s what makes him so good. He operates at a higher tempo than most of his opponents, and gambles with hunches and convoluted plans where the pay-off is so spectacular that it looks like magic. Thrawn not only plays to his opponents’ psychology through his characteristic artistically-informed military tactics, but by causing them to doubt themselves and their own abilities by believing that Thrawn would be aware of their every move. Thrawn uses his own reputation and his opponent’s self-doubts as a weapon, and that’s rather more impressive than if he were simply an all-seeing mastermind. Thrawn’s a genius, but he’s also part charlatan – something that Timothy Zahn himself played off of in his sequel Hand of Thrawn duology that ended the Bantam run of the EU. It’s something we hope to see again in Star Wars Rebels – the mastermind and the trickster, whose evil is of a different shade but nonetheless recognizable as such.

Piercing the mystique

Grand Admiral Thrawn is the villain that fans of the Rebellion love to hate (or even love to love). He’s a great, iconic villain – but he’s also a respectable villain, one who relies on his mind instead of magic, and one who has somewhat laudable goals: he wants an efficient, orderly Empire and he wants to do it to protect the galaxy (whether from disorder, or as revealed in later books, from massive alien invasion). These are all true things about the character, but these truths are veiled by a lot of mythmaking – the same sort of mythmaking that surrounded the great conquerors that inspired the character.

Like Napoleon, Rommel, or Alexander, there’s a romantic legend around Grand Admiral Thrawn. He has a sense of heroism about him, one that is greatly aided by his courtly manner, artistic sensibilities, and ability to achieve much in trying circumstances. He’s a gentleman fighting the winds of change, and he was winning before he was ended. Like his protégé Pellaeon, many fans felt that he was a different kind of Imperial – a kind of Imperial that is a great deal more sympathetic than the Palpatines, Vaders, and Tarkins of Star Wars. Even amongst the more nuanced Imperials of the EU, Thrawn comes away looking wiser and nobler. But was he?

teshikWe’ve already written about whitewashing Imperial villainy in the past, that truly noble Imperials like the EU’s Osvald Teshik or Teren Rogriss need to be few and far between lest the story lose the coherent good and evil narrative. But at the same time, the story needs complexity and nuance. Thrawn’s a great example of how that works out. The myth is that Thrawn is a good Imperial, one who would’ve made a better Empire (in a moral, as well as effective sense). But he’s not.

Thrawn’s a villain, through and through – a true fascist. His first introduction in the EU features him participating in the enslavement of a species and perpetuating cultural genocide against them. He orders indiscriminate orbital bombardments of civilian worlds. Despite trying to contrast himself with Darth Vader, he executes crewmen. He casually breaks faith with those with whom he deals, even while laying waste to any who betray him. He even agrees to kidnap children and turn them over to someone he knows is mentally unsound, to be warped as he sees fit. He equates himself with the Galactic Empire itself, and any defiance means that he will mete out the ultimate punishment. To Thrawn – the ends justify the means. That makes him a villain, with a similar arc as other supposedly well-intentioned villains like Anakin Skywalker and Jacen Solo. Indeed, Tim Zahn later provides a backstory that shows that Thrawn only joined the Empire’s service in order to protect his people and perhaps even the galaxy from a future alien invasion. If so, Thrawn may have started out as a good man – but he became warped and twisted into a dark warlord.

So Thrawn is still very much a villain, mythmaking aside. But that’s a good thing – because the perception that he’s different than the classic villains is exactly what makes Thrawn a good villain. Evil is seductive, and Thrawn presents another example of that – both in terms of the influence he has on his followers and on the fandom writ large. People want to follow Thrawn, even as he takes them into darkness. Like Thrawn, they don’t even know they’re doing it. Falling to the dark side is very Star Wars, and Thrawn shows us another way that journey happens.

Omniscient? Not quite

From the very first chapter he was introduced, Thrawn both impressed and inspired a narrative of invincibility. Right off the bat, the audience learns that Thrawn is a warlord who is cultured and uses his knowledge of art to defeat his enemies. And in that same chapter, Pellaeon wonders how the Battle of Endor might have ended if Thrawn were in command. Through the trilogy, Thrawn uses his knowledge of his enemies as well as an inborn ingenuity to pull off astonishing victories and cause the Empire to resurge to the point that it looks like the Empire might even win. He’s killed on the cusp of victory – but even mere rumors of his return ten years later cause severe angst in the New Republic and a delusion of triumphalism in the thoroughly defeated Imperial Remnant. So complete is the spell he weaves over friend and foe alike, that even inconsistencies in Thrawn’s apparent return are dismissed as part of Thrawn’s master plan – wheels within wheels, and that sort of thing.

Thrawn was certainly impressive. The whole art thing is a little akin to magic – so far beyond the understanding of normal people that it might as well have been preternatural. But he was far from perfect. He was majorly flawed, and he let his successes make him overconfident – and all the while comparing himself favorably to Darth Vader and the Emperor. His hubris came back to stab him through a chair.

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Thrawn played hunches, frequently. They frequently worked out for him – for someone as experienced and knowledgeable as Thrawn, an educated hunch is not a terrible bet to make. But it’s still a bet, and some of Thrawn’s best insights were hunches. That’s not a mark against him, but it’s important to observe that Thrawn didn’t always have all the answers. He played the cards he was dealt, and played them quite well – most of the time.

Thrawn’s hunches succeeded when they were confirmed by events. But his reliance on them meant that he was unable to conceive of things going awry. To the very end, he never anticipated that the Noghri would betray him – even when he became suspicious of their odd behavior. He never realized what lengths C’baoth would go to to defy him, even though he long knew that C’baoth coveted power, and even as Thrawn undertook steps to protect his Empire from C’baoth. He knew Niles Ferrier was a walking disaster, yet continued to rely on him. Thrawn never expected Talon Karrde’s smugglers to decisively turn against him, and underestimated the knowledge Karrde and Mara Jade had about Imperial operations even while being fully aware of who and what they were. His successes blinded him to those threats, his analysis of their traits made him unable to see them deviating from the mental portraits he’d drawn. Is it possible that his reliance on species psychology led him to underestimate the risk of individual action? He’d relied on personal art collections to predict the behavior of Bel Iblis and Ackbar – likelier yet that Thrawn discounted people behaving against interest, or making charitable (e.g., non-self-interested) choices.

His military achievements were similarly affected by his pride. He came up with an ingenious method for dealing with the Empire’s deficiency in war materiel by capturing the Rebel fleet at Sluis Van – but his convoluted plan could not survive a single change in circumstances (that change wrought by Lando Calrissian, whose presence in the battle was not foreseen but perhaps should have at least been hedged against given that the plan relied on property stolen from Lando’s mining operations).

Yet the narrative amongst the characters (and to a certain extent among the fans) is that Thrawn was an omniscient warrior. The Rebellion barely survived Thrawn, and only because he was slain by his bodyguard – this, despite Thrawn failing to realize that the Noghri had betrayed him and this despite the fact that Thrawn was losing the Battle of Bilbringi when he had been slain.

So Thrawn is quite overrated. Yet – he’s still incredibly good. So good, in fact, that his reputation can sometimes win battles for him. Thrawn makes mistakes, but his achievements and ability lead his adversaries to wonder if these mistakes are intentional (though sometimes they are intentional: see Thrawn’s expulsion from the Imperial Court, as detailed by the high society outlet Coruscant Daily Newsfeed in the Star Wars Adventure Journal). It’s Thrawn’s ability to make mistakes look like pre-planned schemes which plays head games with the heroes. His enemies doubt themselves, and this redounds to Thrawn’s advantage. In the Hand of Thrawn books, the heroes ask whether it’s likelier they made a mistake or “Thrawn” did – and they dismiss out of hand the possibility that Thrawn made a mistake. It’s fair to grumble that this is a little strong and that Thrawn was played up a little strongly in Zahn’s subsequent books, but it’s in accordance with the mythology that followed Napoleon, Alexander, and Rommel after their deaths (in Napoleon’s case, he even started writing the myth himself!). Also like Napoleon, the myth was written during his lifetime too – such was Napoleon’s reputation that even when he was in retreat, the victorious allies made it a policy to engage French armies only when they were led by anybody other than Napoleon (after the Six Day Campaign, where Napoleon gave the allies sharp defeats despite lopsided odds). Thrawn was certainly good enough to justify the myth, and he was good enough to exploit it to his own benefit when the myth attributed to him an omniscience that he didn’t have.

How to deal with canon Thrawn

There are certain expectations for Thrawn in Rebels – and Dave Filoni has shown an awareness that Thrawn needs to be a villain of the same league as Vader, one who is a deadly opponent that the protagonists can’t just mess with and one who can’t be defeated on a weekly basis. But hopefully, The Rebels team also captures Thrawn’s flaws – both to present him as a compelling character and also to show how Thrawn was occasionally (but not always!) able to turn those flaws into strengths. As Thrawn once remarked to Pellaeon, “Examine all obstacles carefully: with a little ingenuity, they can be turned into levers.” That’s the essence of Thrawn.

Thrawn is a cerebral enemy, one who uses knowledge as his weapon. He’ll present substantial difficulties for a group that has been able to rely on its ability to outsmart and outthink their opponents. He’s an enemy of another league, presumably bringing new military and psychological tactics (we see precision hyperspace jumping and psychological warfare in the trailer) – but that’s also where his flaws can come in. Thrawn’s predictive successes make him overconfident – and his inability to appreciate gallantry or charity might provide a way for the Ghost crew to convincingly defeat Thrawn without undermining his character. If anything, it would be perfectly consistent with Thrawn. Dave Filoni and co. could also come up with something completely new – but it would definitely be interesting if they use Thrawn’s strengths against him when he’s defeated.

7 comments

  1. Eric Brown says:

    I think the thing that made Thrawn such a compelling villain was that he demonstrated both interesting tactics and strategy. So often the idea was that the Empire just had better equipment and more of it, so you just do things by rote. Follow the book, and let some cackling monster be the one calling the shots.

    Thrawn showed a knowledge of tactics and strategy – and conversely that made the heroes work harder. It made their victory more interesting.

    If you win, you either have overwhelming force, or you exploit a weakness. Thrawn made for interesting weaknesses.

  2. John says:

    I like the idea of Thrawn as having a self-made heroic narrative like Alexander or Napoleon. I also hope that the Story Group also keeps in mind one of the major influences on Zahn’s portrayal of Thrawn: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

    Much of what I find compelling about Thrawn in the Heir to the Empire books is his Holmsian character. Many of Thrawn’s decisions throughout the Trilogy are structured as mini-mysteries. How to break through the planet’s shield? How to steal an entire fleet of enemy warships? Where will the enemy strike next? Thrawn and Holmes both combine a set of deductive principles and inductive leaps (or “hunches”) in order to solve the problems before them. Both have a sidekick (Watson/Pellaeon) whose primary narrative purpose is to have the outcome of the mystery explained to them (and, by extension, the audience).

    Like many good mystery stories, a big part of the fun of watching Thrawn is trying to figure out the mystery before he does (or, at least, before he reveals it). This places some pretty important restrictions on the narrative. On the one hand, the mystery needs to be sufficiently difficult and compelling that the audience doesn’t solve it immediately; otherwise, we feel like our detective/Grand Admiral had it too easy. On the other hand, the mystery needs to be one that could plausibly be solved, if not by the audience then at least by the main character. In Heir to the Empire, Thrawn certainly plays hunches. When first presented, his successful hunches have a magical quality to them, but they can also be explained (more or less) to the audience in a reasonable manner (via Thrawn’s explanations to Pellaeon).

    For my own part, I felt that Zahn’s work in the Heir to the Empire trilogy was much stronger in this regard than his work in Outbound Flight or Choices of One. In the former, Thrawn’s seemingly-magical exploits have at least some logical underpinning (a la Holmes); in the latter, Thrawn’s seemingly-magical exploits are basically written off as magical (he just *knows* things). I hope that his future appearances keep alive the “mystery genre” aspect of his character!

    • John says:

      P.S. – I also think that several of Thrawn’s major failures make fun use of information asymmetries common to mystery writing. Most prominently, Thrawn fails to see the betrayal of the Noghri coming because he does not know that Leia is Vader’s daughter. That oversight is readily explained, because virtually no one in Legends knew about the details of Leia’s parentage. But the audience knows, which makes for some fun dramatic irony: because we have more information, we can predict (more or less) the outcome of that mystery, while Thrawn can’t. This also keeps the audience on the edge of their chairs, because if Thrawn did figure out that one key piece of information (Leia’s parentage), he would probably predict the entire endgame, just like we did. The use of dramatic irony makes Thrawn’s failures as fun and suspenseful to watch as his successes.

  3. Chris says:

    There have been some great points made already, but one more I would tack on is this: we seem to be assuming that Thrawn *will* be defeated in Rebels. I have a speculative hunch – or perhaps just a personal wish – that he’ll survive past Rebels, perhaps even to make a later film debut at some point. I have a couple of reasons for supposing this.

    For one, it’s been indicated, as has been noted in the article, that Thrawn will be a Vader-level villain. On the show, Vader is never shown being defeated, per se. And Vader’s appearance on Rebels is proof that villains can effectively exit the show without having to be squarely defeated first. If Thrawn is being compared to Vader as a class of character, something similar could apply.

    Second, we know from some of the new canon material that the Emperor had been dispatching Imperial talent and resources to the regions beyond known space in the galaxy in search of sources of power. An ingenius and enigmatic asset such as Thrawn could fit the bill, and could explain why he hasn’t figured in the narrative of the Empire’s fall as of this point in the storytelling.

    Finally – and this is pure speculation – some have suggested that Benicio Del Toro’s character in Episode VIII could be Thrawn. If my first two points above hold any plausibility, then I’d suggest Thrawn could be a candidate for an innovative and forward-thinking former Imperial playing a role in re-booting the Empire’s remnants in the form of the First Order (which, we recall, occurred beyond known space).

    In sum, there could be a lot of future potential in this character, depending on where Rebels decides to take his arc. Fun to think about!

    • Atlas98 says:

      I don’t believe Del Toro is playing Del Thrawno (rumours about his character are too consistent) but they have cast an actor to voice him who could easily play an older version of the same character on screen in Lars Mikkelson. I think your absolutely on point with everything else though, especially the part about Thrawn being ‘exiled’ into the Unknown Regions as punishment. Considering the Rebels previews seem to imply the Rebels are building up their fighter forces, I wouldn’t be surprised if failing to stop the theft of the X-Wing prototypes is what leads to Thrawn’s exit

  4. […] Jay Shah unpacks the Thrawn ‘mystique’ for […]

  5. The Author says:

    I don’t think it’s accurate to say Thrawn’s plans fail because they’re so complex one misstep and they fall apart–if anything in HTTE we see the opposite is quite true, Thrawn can respond to setbacks without the entire grand plan crumbling. There are two things that seem to bite him–the first is relatively minor, but goes to his being a far more pragmatic antagonist than an evil-for-the-sake-of-evil villain: he doesn’t kill people it would behoove him to kill. Not because he’s “good”, for whatever value you choose to give the term, but because he’s, well, pragmatic. They might come in handy, he doesn’t do killing just for the sake of it, for whatever reason he often leaves people alive when he’d be better off getting rid of them permanently. C’baoth, Mara, Ferrier, Karrde…his plans would have gone much better if he’d just straight-up executed them when the chance presented itself.

    The other one is the reason that anyone who read TTT closely wouldn’t buy the notion that Thrawn was totally invincible, and why Zahn went out of his way to point it out in the Hand of Thrawn duology where Han points out that Thrawn was never THAT good after the Senate flips out at the thought he might be back from the dead–one on one in battle, fleet to fleet, yes, he’s a VERY hard opponent to overcome and most of what we see of the NR fleet would probably lose. But where Thrawn trips up is where he resembles Holmes, and other detectives (the one I hear in my head is Peter Wimsey from “The Nine Tailors”–“We were wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”) Thrawn, just like the classic detectives including Holmes, is perfectly capable of being handled all the puzzle pieces of a situation, and putting them together completely *wrong.* Leia even STRAIGHT UP SAYS THIS in the narration in DFR: he had all the evidence of what had happened to Kabarakh, and he jumps to entirely the wrong conclusion.

    Where I think Rebels might have an issue is…I believe the “Big Three” and Zahn’s ancillary, adult characters capable of orchestrating a scenario that leads Thrawn to a serious downfall. I can’t really take the Rebels characters that seriously. Which would require either Thrawn to be ‘dumbed down’, or all the characters to take a serious level in both brains and badass. Or just to get very, very, lucky. My vote for an ending would be to ship him off as in the original EU to the Unknown Regions for “failing” somehow (and even that, frankly, is going to take a lot of writing to be convincing in the Rebels context.)

    And I think that the reason a lot of fans prefer Thrawn and view him as a ‘better’ Empire and even a preferable alternative to the NR in the old EU is the same reason a lot of us wound up rooting for Palpatine in the prequels (other than that being an inevitable end to the prequels) was by comparison the “good guys” looked dubiously competent at best. And by the END of the old EU, after we got to the point of Daala being a feasible Chief of State, rose-colored glasses and realizing letting the good guys win that one resulted in trillions of deaths and total incompetents ruling the galaxy made Thrawn, cruel as he might be at times, look pretty good by comparison. (Seriously…Chief of State Daala?)

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