THE Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, twin brothers suckled by a she-wolf, shows wild beasts behaving with greater ``humanity'' than the human villain who exposed the infants to the elements. But stories of compassionate, ethically admirable animals were often told and understood as being remarkable exceptions to the general expectation that wild beasts usually behave - like beasts. In characterizing man as a creature somewhere between beast and angel, medieval theologians meant no complaint to the animal kingdom.
By the 18th century, however, Rousseau and other harbingers of romanticism were singing the praises of the Noble Savage: Man as he might be, freed from the artifices, constraints, and false values of a corrupt society. There was great interest in the habits of so-called ``primitive'' societies, and in case histories of ``wild children.'' Rima the bird-girl in W.H. Hudson's ``Green Mansions,'' Rudyard Kipling's Mowgli, and Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan the ape-man are famous descendants of this tradition.
A recent reworking of the wild child theme is offered by Alice Hoffman in her 10th novel, ``Second Nature.'' Robin Moore, landscape gardener and mother of a 16-year-old son, recently separated from her husband, is visiting the New York hospital where her brother is a psychiatric therapist. Robin's eye is caught by the poignant spectacle of an attractive man in chains about to be transported to a facility for hopeless cases. In an impulsive yet decisive moment, Robin touches his arm. ``Don't let them take me someplace,'' he says. These are his first words in years.
The man whom his therapists have named Stephen spent his formative years in the company of wolves in the woods of northern Michigan. At the age of 3-1/2 he crawled away from an airplane crash that killed his parents, and from then on lived with wolves he considered his ``brothers.'' Discovered years later and brought to the attention of scientists, the Wolf Man has been drilled in the rudiments of language and etiquette and questioned repeatedly about his experiences, but to little avail. Just at the point that medical science is giving up on him, Robin rescues him.
She takes him home to her place on an island off the coast of Long Island. Before long, he's helping her in the landscape business, making friends with her son, and proving to be quite an asset. He even manages to get on with Robin's cantankerous 91-year-old grandfather. While everyone else assumes the old man is tired of life, the Wolf Man understands his deep need to live more fully and intensely.
In due course, Stephen and Robin fall in love. But a series of unsolved crimes plague the island and cause trouble for the couple.
Although the linchpins of her plot are somewhat improbable, Hoffman's characters are quite believable, and her handling of the potentially sensationalistic subject is relatively restrained. Stephen is not so much a ``wolf man'' as a man unused to dissembling. Living in the wilderness has taught him the importance of making quick, sound judgments. Forthright and truthful, he is no naif: He quickly understands that ``civilized'' men are different.
Hoffman's treatment of the wild-child theme may strike some as overly simplistic, though others may find her sympathy for nature and the natural man an appealing feature of the story. Hardly anyone, I think, would venture to say that this novel breaks fresh ground in the ongoing exploration of the age-old topic, but whatever its shortcomings, ``Second Nature' is a fairly diverting piece of entertainment.