FAMOUS AS VICTORIA'S devoted prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli was also a fashionable novelists, in Tancred he limned a lady describing a new book which had caught, if not wholly held, her attention:

"But what is most interesting is the way in which man developed. . . . I think there were shells, then fishes; then we came. Let me see, did we come next? Never mind that; we came at last. And the next stage will be something very superior to us; something with wings. Ah! that's it; we were fishes, and I believe we shall be crows."

For those today whose grasp of evolution is similarly vague, Evan Connell is gracefully and tactfully instructive, on this and other historic matters, as Disraeli was with the queen. The first essay in this book is a stylish summary of man's theories about his origin and evolution, from 17th-century Archishop Ussher's confident dating of the CREATION AT 4004 B.C. to 20th-century archeologist Luise Leakey musing over 2-million-year-old bones in the Olduvai Gorge.

Armchair explorer Connell is an urbane polymath, an amateur in the Victorian tradition. He is a connoisseur, not merely of pre-Columbian Art like the hero of his last novel, but of everything arcane, exotic, ancient or bizarre: places, fauna, legands and feats, but above all personalities, especially quacks, crancks, heretics and heroic failures. Here, for example, he gives less space to Charles Darwin than to Charles Dawson, lawyer and antiquarian, who some 70 years ago perpetrated (probably) the greatest of all archeological frauds, the Piltdown Man.

The succes of that fraud and the skepticism which had earlier greated the Neanderthal Man indicate the difficulty of distinguishing between the genuine and fake, historic and mythic or even between astrronomy and astrology, the theme of the last essay with its punning Latinate title, "Abracadastra." This survey of man's study of the stars begins with the pre-Socratic Thales and ends with Percival Lowell, a turn-of-the -century astronomer with impeccable credentials, both social and scientific, who became convinced that there were irrigation canals and pumping stations on Mars. "If only," Connell writes, "he had not insisted on the public works. Eleven years of reputable work reputable work almost for gotten because of one spectacular mistake. But sometimes that happens. Who cares about Casey's batting average?"

Frauds, errors and losses divert the course of knowledge and discovery -- and in these sprightly accounts, divert us. "Vinland Vinland" glances at the evidence for 11th-century Viking landings in North America; convincing, though some of the rusty little axes proposed as relics turned out to be souvenir plug tabacco cutters. Too bad, since one might have belonged to Lief Ericson's fierce sister Freydis who, according to saga, whetted a sword on on her bare breasts, betrayed her allies and personally slew all their wives with an axe.

Another discovery, another loss is the subject of the title esay on the Scott-Amundsen 1911-12 expeditions to the South Pole. "Victory awaits those who have everything in order. People call this luck," the Norwegian Amundsen remarked drily. "Defeat awaits those who fail to take the necessary percuations. This is known as bad luck." His own precautions included planning the slaughter of his dogs one by one as the sledges lightened and conversion of each dog into 50 pounds of meat. His team not only reached the Pole first but luckily got back healthy, with food to spare. Captain Scott and his friends lost the race and their lives. Yet connell reminds us -- he hardly needs to -- of the self-sacrifice of Edward Oates and the gallant understatement of his last words ("I am just going outside and may be some time") and of the stoic death of the charismatic Scott; he also comments that today the loser is often thought to have been the victor, and is remembered and honored as his successful rival is not.

The White Lantern is a companion piece to Connell's A Long Desire (1979): an essay on the Etruscans here parallels one on the Olmecs there, astronomers pair with alchemists, the South Pole with the Seven Cities of Cibola. The present volume is somewhat more concerned with history than with legand, but of course there have been as many myths about America as Atlantis, of primitive man as Prester John, and Connell writing of all of these slyly raminds us of facts that turned out to be fables, fantasies that came true. Such curiosities were also the main substance of Connell's two fascinating book-length poems. On the opening page of Points for a Campass Rose, his mysterious Tiresian narrator extends anivitation that might apply to all these books and which deserves the answer "Yes!"

"Listen, I've decided to take a trip I'm going to Padua . . . like Albert Durer to Firenze. I don't plan to return althogether ignorant, and you're welcome to join me.

So what do you say?"