The (Re)Ascendancy of Thrawn
I’ve been an unabashed Thrawn fangirl for a while now, much to my friends’ and family’s amusement. I read Heir to the Empire back in the day and thought it was a good series.
My deep dive really began in 2011, after reading Heir to the Empire: The 20th Anniversary Edition with the author and editor notes. I loved it. I reread the trilogy and the comics. I cried at Thrawn’s death in The Last Command – it was, after all, artistically done and especially visceral in the comics. I read all Thrawn novels, novellas. and short stories, noting who I thought wrote Thrawn well and who didn’t. Soon after, I was crushed when Disney bought Star Wars and Mitth’raw’nuruodo was relegated to Legends. I believed I’d never see my beloved blue villain again.
When Thrawn returned to canon in Rebels Season Four, I was thrilled; when Timothy Zahn started writing Thrawn again, I was ecstatic. And I don’t know how to describe my happiness when, in Chapter 13 of The Mandalorian, I first heard Ahsoka say, “Where is Grand Admiral Thrawn?” I screamed. I said a little prayer blessing Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni. If I could have it my way, Lee Pace, with his stentorian voice and sleek muscles, would be cast as my Star Wars Intergalactic Daddy – besides, he’s into sci fi, has already played authoritarian rulers, and is used to wearing blue makeup.
Timothy Zahn’s six canon Thrawn books portray a different Thrawn than the character in Heir to the Empire. Heir’s Thrawn was measured, thoughtful, and calm, as well as utterly ruthless. He had no qualms killing officers on his vessels. He hunted pregnant Leia to give her unborn children to an unstable Jedi clone he himself didn’t trust. He was definitely a villain.
Zahn’s first trilogy in canon chronicles Thrawn’s life as an Imperial. For the first time, we see the story from Thrawn’s point of view. This Thrawn is thoughtful, studies art, and wins battles by understanding his enemies. He’s also socially awkward and politically naive. I didn’t totally buy that characterization, but I love this more noble Thrawn – and to be fair, the Legends iteration of Thrawn does become more noble and less ruthless as more stories like Side Trip and Command Decision and novels like Outbound Flight or Choices of One were written about him.
The second trilogy published in the canon Thrawn storyline details his life in the Chiss Ascendency years earlier. Lesser Evil, the last book of the second trilogy, bookends with the first canon book, Thrawn, which began with his exile from the Ascendency. The moment Thrawn is exiled is deeply moving. Again, I was wiping away tears for Thrawn.
My love for Thrawn has evolved from my respect for Heir era Thrawn. Canon Thrawn, like later Legends Thrawn, is a brilliant, reasoned tactician. He doesn’t panic. He’s a maverick who plays on a much larger field than the Imperials, Rebels, or even Chiss. He’s willing to sacrifice himself to save a galaxy which doesn’t quite understand him. Plus, he takes his dates to art museums then on to sparring. He looks really good in tank tops (looking at you, Lee Pace!) while fighting droids. What else could a fangirl want? For one, we want merch!
Following the hashtag #Thrawn on Instagram even five years ago didn’t yield much. The merch was maybe a few patches and a couple of T-shirts. Now, what I find blows me away. There are numerous Thrawn accounts on Instagram from all over the world. There’s a slew of fanfics. On Etsy, there are clever and adorable pins, T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, even Chiss Ascendancy shorts. There are stickers and Chibi Thrawns. There is so much Thrawn art.
Here, I’ve interviewed two other Thrawn fans: Krista and Paola. Krista is a glass artist and librarian who makes amazing Thrawn stained glass. (Full disclosure: I own a few). Her daughters make her Thrawn birthday cards! Paola is a mechanical engineering professor from Italy. She is passionate about sharing her love for Thrawn and bringing Thrawn fans together. They are great representatives of Thrawn’s current Re-Ascendancy. We talk about Star Wars, Thrawn, art, and we wonder together: does Disney appreciate Thrawn for who he is now, or will he stay the cold villain of Heir To The Empire?
- Let’s start with the bigger picture first: When were you introduced to Star Wars? What made you a fan? Who are some of your favorite characters other than Thrawn?
Paola: I went to see The Empire Strikes Back on the big screen with my favorite uncle in 1980 when I was 4. I was hooked. For life. Then, I waited for Han to be freed from the carbonite for almost double of my life at that time (ROTJ hit the theaters when I was 7), so, we can say, I truly learned the meaning of a story “cliffhanger.” My favorite character at that time, no doubt, was Luke, and, although I see now all his defects and limitations as a narrative construct, I cannot deny that he is still one of the fictional characters I am the most emotionally invested into. Especially after the tiny nervous breakdown I had at the end of the second season of The Mandalorian when I just saw his distinctive hilt for like a picosecond.
After more than 40 years, I can say that many are the Star Wars characters I love. However, my brain replies to the inevitable “who is your favorite” question with Kanan Jarrus. Not just is he probably the perfect incarnation of the essence of a Jedi, but he is funny, bold, kind, and in love.
Krista: I was raised on Star Wars. My earliest movie memories are watching them on TV with my family. I can remember seeing Return of the Jedi in the theater when I was 5. It captured my imagination and has never let it go! My favorite scenes were of the Star Destroyers and AT-ATs. They thrilled me in a way that I can’t explain. I’ve always loved Princess Leia, of course. She was my princess! Darth Vader as well because, as a kid, I thought it was so cool that he was Princess Leia’s dad. And he was super mysterious and powerful. When I got older, I really liked Admiral Piett. I liked the military guy doing his job in those mighty military machines. I saw him as separate from the evil of the Sith.
- How were you introduced to Thrawn?
Krista: I’m a public librarian and in 2018 I started a job at a new library. I am unashamedly a Star Wars fan and my new coworkers were soon acquainted with that fact. One of them asked if I had ever read the Heir to the Empire trilogy. He said they were really well done and that he thought I would like them. So I listened to them. I got through the Heir to the Empire Trilogy and really liked the Thrawn character. But it was when I moved on to the canon book Thrawn that I realized that this character was special. Throughout the Legends trilogy, he appeared little more than what I traditionally considered an Imperial Officer to be – intimidating, a bit arrogant, maybe obsessed with power and crushing the Rebellion. But Thrawn showed a whole new side of him. And I loved that side. Of course, I came to realize after reading the Hand of Thrawn duology the character is the same in Legends as in canon. His motivations are the same. But, initially, it was reading Thrawn that really showed me the characteristics that I came to admire.
Paola: I was introduced to Thrawn in Rebels. I remember when Heir of the Empire was released, but I actually didn’t read it at that time. So, my first introduction with him was through the eyes of Dave Filoni, a real fan, of course, but still, not in his original concept, not through the mind of his creator, Timothy Zahn. Overall, he seemed a challenging adversary, but not substantially different from a Tarkin or a Krennic, a calm and subtle ruthless Imperial. Huge mistake on my part.
- What is it about Thrawn that you love?
Paola: I really cannot reply to this question in a form that does not involve a 12,000 word essay. Since February last year, I have been writing on my Instagram about him, and I feel I barely started to express my feelings about the character. I don’t even think that “what I love” is the correct term.
It is like I am reading me, like someone finally understood and is able to describe who a certain kind of human is. And finally, there I am.
I am seen. I am existing.
I really cannot describe the feeling better than this. And it is not because I am particularly brilliant, or I try to win wars using art, but because never before I had a character that processed reality like I do, but without being a rude, terrible sentient being, which was the classical narrative, the usual “Sherlock package”. Mr. Zahn took Holmes and his neurodivergence, and removed conceit and vanity. Thrawn is, at the same time, logical but kind, calm but full of emotion. His way of approaching situations and problems is systematic, but this does not make him a robot nor an insensible moron. He is endlessly patient, he adores teaching, he likes curious people.
But the personal connection goes deeper. To his inability to read some social constructs. To his tendency to be misunderstood. And, more than anything, to his superiority complex on top of an inferiority complex. Fundamentally, he thinks that he is stronger, he can deal with disappointment, solitude, and pain better than pretty much anyone else. He knows he can handle the worst scenarios, the most upsetting outcomes. Never for his own good or happiness. And, this is because, fundamentally, he thinks that his only reason for existing is being smarter, aware of danger, and protecting everyone. That his life has no value besides that. Besides being useful.
Krista: His intelligence, of course. But also his compassion. Thrawn has a spark that no one else has. It is intelligence mixed with compassion. He is unique among his people as well as humans. He can see who needs protecting and how to do it. He knows he is unique and that he has to be the one to do it because no one else can. He is utterly self-sacrificing toward that end. Utterly.
Thrawn is always striving to bring out the best in people. The success of others does not threaten him. His actions are not dictated by whether or not they bring him personal glory, rank, or prestige. They are not dictated by rules or laws, or whether they will bring him official shame or embarrassment. His actions are always dictated by what is right in his eyes for the protection of the Chiss and universe as a whole.
- What are your favorite Thrawn stories?
Krista: I love Outbound Flight, Thrawn, Thrawn: Treason, and Lesser Evil. I don’t care for the Thrawn portrayed in Rebels. I always say that Rebels Thrawn isn’t Thrawn.
Paola: I love all Zahn’s canon work. I am not familiar with Legends (yet?). I adored the “Imperial” trilogy and am in love with the Ascendancy books. I cannot honestly choose my favorites among these six because they are all splendid, but if I had to suggest a novice, I would say to start with Thrawn. With the audiobook, specifically, read by Marc Thompson.
- How do you express your fandom?
Paola: I talk. A LOT.
I write. A LOT.
I buy. A LOT.
On Instagram, I pretty much take a picture of everything Star Wars I own, adding endless captions trying to connect something purely fictional with human sentiments and situations. And I absolutely love it when I succeed in doing that.
But I never was a “passive” fan, so, in this case, as in the past (with other fandoms), I am also connecting, traveling, organizing events, trying to be proactive in my passions. I met most of my “found family” of friends through fandom events I’ve managed. The best part of being into a fandom: people.
Krista: I make Thrawn stained glass! I have been making stained glass for over 6 years, and started combining that with my Thrawn obsession a little over a year ago. My small business, Ghazar Glass, has grown out of my desire to create art and my love of Thrawn! It is truly amazing to be able to create Thrawn-inspired pieces for other Thrawn fans. I also collect Thrawn merchandise.
- In an ideal world, who would play Thrawn in live action?
Krista: I think Jason Isaacs is the closest I have seen to those wonderful book covers (Alliances and Treason). I could also see Oded Fehr as Thrawn.
Paola: In my ideal world, no one. Thrawn would be everything Zahn wrote about him or imagined about him. He did not describe him much, besides some mannerisms, very Sherlock style. And I personally love this.
But he would have the voice of Marc Thompson. The Thrawn who lives in my mind has no face, but I can listen to his voice (Marc’s) for hours.
- How do your friends and family react to your fandom?
Paola: My family kind of gave up many years ago. Now, I guess they consider it part of the “me” frame. My job, my weirdness, my fandoms. They have a different level of understanding and tolerance about it, but, in general, at this point they just think it is a part of who I am, like my face or my eye color. Unchangeable. My found family was mostly “downloaded” from fandoms in a span of more than 30 years. We can go on for hours (and I literally mean it) speaking about fictional characters, tv shows and books. And I regret nothing.
Krista: My family is pretty supportive. My husband drove our family 14 hours from Detroit to Kansas City last August just so I could meet Timothy Zahn and ask him to sign a Thrawn stained glass piece! My three daughters are also great. They frequently make Thrawn crafts for me and even made a frosting Thrawn on my birthday cake last year.
Friends don’t get it at all. I don’t even really let my friends in real life see the extent of my fandom. They see my glass but I just don’t think they get it or me.
My online friends that I have met over the past year are my people. They are the friends that understand me and I can just be myself around. I have really felt accepted, included, and understood since I have been a part of this fandom. I am so blessed to have found them!
- Where can we find you online?
Krista: My IG is @ghazar_glass. This is my stained glass art account but also serves as a Thrawn fan account. I have just created a Ghazar Glass Facebook page as well but I am much less active there.
Paola: I am mostly on Instagram, @TheAccidentalGeek. I also have a blog. During the quarantine, I started the IG account for sharing my lightsabers and prop creation, my collections, and my silly thoughts about books and series. I have met beautiful humans on this journey, and I am so proud to be part of this community.
- The (Re)Ascendancy of Thrawn - February 19, 2022
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