ON AN AUGUST night in 1939, in the Hampshire village of Ringwood, a rather confused 36-year-old crypto-Trotskyite named Eric A. Blair had a dream. Blair, a novelist and pamphleteer who had vocally opposed British preparations for "imperialist war" against Hitler, dreamed that the fighting had at last begun. "And in the dream, he realized as well that "the long drilling in patriotism which the middle classes go through had done its work, and that once England was in a serious jam it would be impossible for me to sabotage."

Eric Blair, of course, wrote under the pseudonym of "George Orwell." As Orwell, he had recently published Homage to Catalonia, the most brilliant piece of political journalism of our century. As Orwell, he would go on to write Animal Farm and 1984, which would earn him a place as one of the greatest satirists of world literature.

The dream Blair/Orwell had in August 1939 was a key experience in the growth and maturity of his odd, difficult literary and political personality. But despite their ambitious title, Peter Stansky and William Abrahams do not include it in Orwell: The Transformation, a "biographical study" of almost maddeningly limited scope.

"We are not writing 'history,' using Orwell as an exemplary or typical figure (he was neither)," the authors note primly. "Nor do we intend to introduce snippets of history (clues and cues to great events in the world outside) in an effort to make a biographical study such as this 'historical,' when all the evidence suggests that it could not be so."

The evidence suggests to me that any study of Orwell, no matter how defined, had better include more than snippets of history (with no quote marks) if it is to make either his life or his work comprehensible. More than most members of his remarkable literary generation, Orwell lived in and by history -- the tawdry romance of the British Empire, depression unemployment, the Spanish Civil War, the London Blitz.

Stansky and Abrahams, however, are interested in a purely literary examination of the "transformation" -- the process by which Eric Blair, Etonian esthete, became George Orwell, socialist polemicist. Their thesis is that the crucial experience was Blair/Orwell's six-month stint as a militiaman in Republican Spain. "By 1938 -- after his return from Spain and the writing of Homage to Catalonia," they write, "the consonance between George Orwell in his work and his life, the 'creation of his imaginative identity,' had been virtually completed."

The present volume (the authors' study of Orwell's youth, The Unknown Orwell, was published in 1972) follows Eric Blair from the publication of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London, in 1933 through his return from Spain in 1936. There is little new here; most of the narrative seems to be a reworking of An Age Like This, the first volume of Orwell's posthumous collection of letters and essays. The authors' chief claim to biographical originality comes in the partial picture they have been able to piece together of Orwell's courtship of, and marriage to, Eileen O'Shaughnessy, the vivacious psychology student who devoted herself to him (and seems to have made him an uncharacteristically happy man) until her tragic death in 1945.

But though they recount a few vivid anecdotes -- Orwell setting off on a motorbike in winter to deliver a book manuscript, and catching a near-fatal chill, or meeting his future wife at a party and announcing to friends that "Eileen O'Shaughnessy is the girl I want to marry" -- Stansky and Abrahams make almost no effort to total up their protagonist. They show that he was "prickly," "cynical," "perverse," "contradictory" and "paradoxical" -- but they seem to have little curiosity about what made him that way. And they do not even take a stab at the question of what about Orwell's writing has made him such an enduring figure in world literature.

Their argument -- that Spain was the crucial milepost in "Blair's" pilgrimage toward "Orwell" -- is inarguable and not particularly novel. Red Barcelona was the high spot of Orwell's political life; the first part of his Spanish memoir, Homage to Catalonia, is a kind of "positive utopia" to contrast with the "negative utopia" of 1984.

But the "transformation" of Orwell as a political thinker was far from complete in 1936, when this book ends. The man who could write that "fascism and capitalist 'democracy' are Tweedledum and Tweedledee" was not yet the man who would write 1984 and Animal Farm. The last bit of the transformation -- the realization that England's war against Hitler was his war -- remained; Stansky and Abrahams omit it, perhaps because it is so messily "historical."

But it was only after the dream in Ringwood that Orwell would be able to write prophetically, "National Socialism is a form of socialism, is emphatically revolutionary, does crush the property owner just as surely as it crushes the worker. The [Soviet and German] regimes, having started from opposite ends, are rapidly moving towards the same system -- a form of oligarchical collectivism." It was then that Orwell became passionate about both democracy and socialism; and it was only then that he could coin the words and phrases by which he has entered the language: "Big Brother," "Thought Police," "doublethink" and "All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others."

As we teeter on the verge of a new era of Cold War and thought control, Orwell seems as important as ever. As a prophet of the Alvin Toffler variety, of course, he was no good at all. The western world, four years before the terrible milestone he foretold, resembles the amoral consumer paradise of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World far more than the shabby, bellicose Oceania of 1984, while the eastern bloc nations are, by most accounts, ruled far more by bureaucratic inertia and corruption than by mass terror, show trials, war hysteria and leader worship (post-Mao China may be following this latter path as well).

In fact, Orwell's pessimistic, splenetic jeremiads have their ridiculous side; in much of his later writing he seems to have adopted the self-conscious pose of a socialist reactionary, a kind of Comrade Blimp. But it is his absurd prickliness -- as pronounced in his personality as in his writing -- that makes him valuable to us today.

In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell wrote that his years as an imperial policeman in Burma had left him with such feelings of guilt that "failure seemed to me the only virtue." That absurd integrity never really deserted him; he ran at life with his head, avoided good fortune when he could, denied it when he could not and remained always, in Richard Rees' phrase, a "fugitive from the camp of victory."

Few of us would want to live -- or think -- like George Orwell much of the time. But a bit of that prickliness, that relentless suspicion, is essential, particularly in politics. Beware, his shade seems to caution; beware of the current enthusiasm, the correct line, the consensus of the "smart people," left or right.

Stansky and Abrahams record that before leaving for Spain, Orwell met with Harry Pollitt, the English Communist leader, to ask for party sponsorship as a way to get into the Republic. "When Pollitt asked if he would agree to join the International Brigade, Orwell replied that he would make no agreement until he had seen what was going on."

Pollitt turned him down, and Orwell went to Spain as a representative of the obscure Independent Labor Party. Once he had seen for himself, however, he joined the militia, fought bravely, and was nearly killed.

It is that combination -- his insistence on seeing for himself, and his willingness to act once he had seen -- that makes Orwell such an admirable figure. Would that the recruiters for our new Cold War had both his caution and his courage.