IN 1898 when the Barnum and Bailey freaks met to plan strategy for getting the public to call them prodigies, the minutes of the meeting were recorded by the Armless Wonder with his feet. Before the Siamese twins, Daisy and Violet Hinton, died of Hong Kong flu, they were working in a supermarket as a double checkout girl, one bagging while the other operated the cash register. After Mme. Fortune Clofullia shaped her beard in the style of Napoleon III's, he was so flattered he sent her diamonds which made the Empress Eugenie jealous but did not bother M. Clofullia who knew his bearded wife was modest and respectable.

Why do these anecdotes make us smile, wince, turn away, turn back again, the way we do when we look at ourselves in distorting mirrors at a fun house? Leslie Fiedler's subtitle - Myths and Images of the Secret Self - makes the connection between the freak and the self, the self which is grotesquely handicapped but functioning, the self which feels powerless or all-powerful, the self which conceals its deformities under a cloak or which exhibits them on a velvet couch, the self which is part man, part woman. The true freak, as opposed to the invented monster, "challenges the conventional boundaries between male and female, sexed and sexless, animal and human, large and small, self and other, and consequently between reality and illusion, experience and fantasy, fact and myth." Freaks combines Diane SArbus's frontal exhibitions with Ovid's Metamorphoses, Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams and a Sears Roebuck catalogue.

Monster, the preferred name for freaks from Chaucer's time to Shakespeare's, is etymologically obscure; it may derive from moneo, to warn, or monstro, to show forth. In either case, the early vision was that freaks were the emblems of Providence. On Babylonian clay tablets, dating from around 2,800 B.C., there is a lexicon of monsterology: "When a woman gives birth to an infant that has a head on the head . . . the good augury shall enter into the house."

The ancient world believed in the power of its freaks. The modern world distances its feelings about them by looking at them as curiosities. But their power to touch us continues because of our archetypal identification with them. One of the book's many discussions of freak motifs in art (these range from Goya to Hollywood, from Joyce to the Oz books) is in the chapter on dwarfs where Dicken's The Old Curiosity Shop is analyzed in terms of the demonic and angelic versions of dwarf lore. The "goblin-like" Quilp is "the Dwarf as wicked lecher and persecutor of women"; "fairy-like" little Nell is "the Midget as Elfchild . . . Thinking of diminutive humans in archetypal terms we tend to identify them either with the very old or very young: monstrous parents who will not die, though they shrivel and shrink; or angelic children, fixed forever somewhere just short of puberty."

Even before children know the words that define size they must deal with themselves as midgets in a world of giants. Fiedler also relates the young, untrained child to those freaks who are man and beast: Jo-Jo the Dogfaced Boy or the Wild Man of Borneo. Fiedler might have pointed out that the infant, unable to distinguish self from mother, is a transient version of the One-and-a-Half. This is a fully developed human with an incomplete parasitic body attached. Frank Lentini had emerging from his torso a rudimentary twin with a pelvis, an imperfect penis and a leg with which it could kick a soccer ball.

This book may sound like another version of the two most popular books on freaks, Frederick Drimmer's Very Special People or Bill Carmichael's Incredible Collectors, Weird Antiques and Odd Hobbies. But it is as different from those two awkardly written historical compendiums as The Odysey is from the Guiness Book of World Records. Such a comparison makes Freaks sound like a masterpiece; it is not, though the prose and the imaginative syntheses are wonderful. But often it is more a collection of fascinating essays than a cohesive, well-structured whole. And sometimes Fiedler pushes a conceit too far, as in his statement that when watching a football game our sense of human scale is "altered week after week" by seeing players who in another era would have been considered giant monsters. But to point to such small faults is really gnatpicking. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] to say I loved Fiedler's Cabinet of Marvels. Or, as an early circus [WORD ILLEGIBLE] "Mysteries and Wonders, an [WORD ILLEGIBLE] gailery of beautiful, living supernatural visions. A rare and most wonderful scientific exhibition assembled here." Hurry, hurry, hurry to read Freaks.