UNTIL JUST the other day, Canadian literature hardly existed. I mean, a literature which had Louis Honore Frechette and Bliss Carman for its two leading poets, and which couldn't do much better than T.C. Haliburton and Luis H,emon as novelists, was distinctly minor league. It was ahead of, say, Guatemalan literature, but not much.

There were exceptions, of course. There are always exceptions. One was the great naturalist who wrote first as Ernest Seton Thompson and later as Ernest Thompson Seton. (The change was roughly comparable to Irving Wallace's son becoming David Wallachinsky. Seton's Scottish great-grandfather, fleeing with a price on his head after the battle of Culloden, had disguised himself with the first English-sounding name he thought of, which happened to be Thompson. Seton wanted to reclaim his identity.)

He also wanted to and did lead a remarkably diverse life. He grew up partly on the Manitoba frontier, partly in stuffy Toronto. As a young man he was a professional wolf-hunter, both in Canada and New Mexico. But he also studied art in Paris--and more than studied: He had a picture accepted for the Salon in 1891. He published scores of scientific articles on the wildlife of Manitoba. He went to New York and drew all the natural-history illustrations for The Century Dictionary. He helped to found the Boy Scouts, and served as Chief Scout until he resigned in disgust when Theodore Roosevelt got the idea of giving the lads military training.

The thing he did best, though, was to write stories. He could do human characters--his novel of boyhood, Two Little Savages, is still a delight--but nearly all his best work is about animals. The best, or some of it, is to be found in Wild Animals I Have Known.

The book tells the stories of eight very different animals: Lobo, the greatest of the wolves he went to hunt in New Mexico; Silverspot, a crow living in pine woods just north of Toronto; Wully, a sheepdog who led a secret life at night as a sheep-killer; Raggylug, a young rabbit living on the edge of a Manitoba farm, and so on. Kipling once said it was reading the story of Raggylug that gave him the idea for The Jungle Books.

Seton loved heroes, and in one way or another each of these animals is heroic. Not anthropomorphized, much less Disneyfied, just heroic. Lobo, for example, the giant leader of the Currumpaw wolves, can and does outsmart men with traps, poison baits, and packs of dogs. Silverspot led a pack of 200 crows for more than 20 years--taught the young ones each year how to deal with owls, hawks and men with guns, and even how to distinguish between a man with an umbrella and a man with a gun. Raggylug leads nobody--cottontail rabbits are not herd animals--but he has mastered the art of luring a dog into a barbwire fence; and his fight with an older rabbit who moves into the swamp where he lives is a real epic.

Heroic animals are hardly scarce in literature. Where they are scarce is in books by naturalists--who indeed are much more apt to discuss populations of animals rather than individuals, heroic or otherwise. What gives Seton his appeal is the combination of exciting and sometimes even melodramatic stories with meticulous and authoritative detail. Well the detail might be. After all, he had written a manual called Birds of Manitoba in 1891; he had published another book called Art Anatomy of Animals in 1896; it was a painting of a sleeping wolf that got admitted to the Salon. He knew what he was talking about, and in the hundreds of little marginal sketches that are one of the great charms of his books, he knew what he was drawing. If he says that crows have blue eyes when young and brown eyes when full- grown, or that male rabbits rub their chins as high up as they can reach on small trees, and thus leave a scent-mark for other male rabbits to investigate, or that dogs cannot be induced to hunt a she-wolf during mating season, you know that you are getting facts.

Seton himself claimed a good deal more than that. "These stories are true" are the very first words of Wild Animals I Have Known. He meant them to apply not just to the background detail but to the remarkable stories he tells. Lobo running across the backs of a huddled flock of sheep to get at the handful of goats in the middle, knowing that once he kills the goats the sheep will stampede. A mother fox who comes every night right into a barnyard to nurse her captive cub and try to free him--but who, once she realizes she cannot gnaw through the metal chain or dig it free, kills her son rather than leave him in captivity. A crow leader who has 10 different calls, each with a specific and translatable meaning. Ca-ca-ca-ca caw, for example (which Seton gives complete with musical notation) means "Great danger--a gun" while C-r-a-a-w means roughly "Let's mate." That same crow was able to count up to 30, and the average crow in his flock able to count up to six.

When I was a boy reading Seton's books, it never occurred to me to doubt any of this. Not even Lobo, the wolf no man was smart enough to kill, winds up dying for love of his mate, the white wolf Blanca. I simply rejoiced that such things existed in the world, and wished I had the eyes to see them.

It occurred to other natural scientists in Seton's time, though, and eventually one of the greatest of them went on the attack. In 1903, John Burroughs denounced Seton in print. What he said in effect was that Seton tells wonderful stories, but why does he insist on claiming they're true? Then he began listing the lies in Wild Animals I Have Known. Being himself an expert ornithologist, he went especially hard at the story of Silverspot. He said, for example, that crows don't have leaders; that they can't count to six, let alone 30; that while they undoubtedly have "various calls," no human being could possibly know what they mean, still less render them in English.

I suspect that Burroughs was partly right. Some of the stories Seton tells are simply too good to be true. But I know for certain that he wasn't entirely right. Later scientists have vindicated at least one of Seton's observations. Seton says that Silverspot could convey 10 different messages, does he? David Johnson in The Biosystematics of American Crows (1961) notes calmly that crows are capable of "no less than 10 different kinds of notes or calls." He offers no translations. But Franklin Coombs does, in a 1978 book called The Crows. Not in Seton's dramatic terms, and only of five crow-cries, but still translations.

The wonderful thing about Seton is that he offers a middle road between the frank sentimentalism of Bambi and ten thousand thousand other children's books, and the impersonal biostatistics of most natural history. I'm pretty sure that, as Huckleberry Finn would say, he tells a few stretchers, but the animal heroism, and cleverness and, yes, emotion that he describes are real things. The stories he embodied them in are superb. Even Burroughs granted that. What child could ask for more?

Well, there is one more thing a child could ask for. He (or she--my daughters love Seton) could ask that a book this good stay in print, so that he could get it as a Christmas present. Canada, to its credit, has kept Wild Animals I Have Known in print. It's a New Canadian Library paperback; inhabitants of the United States can order it through Cannon Book Distribution, 1205 Bathurst St., Toronto M5R 3H3-- though it won't arrive in time for Christmas. $4.95 plus $1 shipping. But in the States there's just one of those overpriced reprint editions that only a library could love, and for most of Seton, nothing. Pity.y

NOEL PERRIN's "Rediscoveries" column appears on the third Sunday of the month.